I’ve loved this play ever since I saw the incomparable Ruth Gordon enchant her audience and everyone on stage in it as Dolly Levi some 56 years ago. What I did not know was that Wilder completed it in Stratford, Ontario when Tyrone Guthrie invited him to work there on revising his unsuccessful source-play, The Merchant of Yonkers. In fact, Guthrie, Stratford’s founding director, won a Tony Award for best direction on Broadway with The Matchmaker. It now plays less often than the musical adapted from it, Hello, Dolly!, but much of Wilder’s beloved wit and even a lot of his madcap farcical comedy get lost in the musical.
Noted for sneaking up on his audience with life-affirming philosophy that emerges from seemingly outrageous avant-garde theater in his Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder makes the typically romantic farce of The Matchmaker a series of lessons on life, love, and the pursuit of money. He punctuates the farce’s typical slamming doors, lovers hiding in the closet and under the table, tricks of false identity and lost wallets, and men disguised as women. How? Wilder gives them philosophical speeches! Many of his silly characters address the audience directly with hilarious speeches that let ordinary folk enlighten us all with hard-earned wisdom. I don’t know how many people have quoted Dolly Levi to me (who was actually quoting her late husband to us) that “Money is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread about, encouraging young things to grow."
Malachi Stack, a raffish Irish-American man looking for mostly-honest employment, is a fountain of such observations. In this production, the small role of Malachi is revealingly played by Geraint Wyn Davies (a masterful exemplar of Stratford’s classical repertory system, who is also playing the title role of Cymbeline, and has recently played King Arthur in Camelot, Falstaff, a one-man play on Dylan Thomas, Julius Caesar, Polonius, and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady!).
The superb cast in this production boasts a number of such gems. Playing the mousey maid to Horace Vandergelder and the conspiratorial cook for Flora Van Huysen, Chick Reid makes tasty bits of her brief appearances. John Vickery plays three such offbeat servants, including a barber incensed at Vandergelder’s suggestion that he do “something extra” to fix up Vandergelder to go courting.
Others in this romp include Horace’s niece Ermengarde (Cara Ricketts) and her suitor, Ambrose Kemper (Skye Brandon), a frustrated pair of lovers who mostly get lost in the shuffle. Laura Condlin brings much spirit to the milliner Irene Malloy, whom Dolly pretends to match up with Horace, and with whom Horace’s clerk, Cornelius Hackl, has a romantic adventure.
Andrea Runge is alternately innocent and goofy as Irene’s young assistant, Minnie Fay. Josh Epstein clowns as the very young apprentice Barnaby, who is second banana to Cornelius.
All these wind up in the final act in the elaborate New York home of a strong-willed, wealthy relative of Vandergelder, Miss Flora Van Huysen. The high jinks here are usually silly fun, but Nora McLellan as Flora takes over and adds an unusually strong comic sidetrack. A would-be opera star without the background, Flora plays recordings and sings along and creates her own fantasy world. When the young lovers are sent to her home to be detained until Horace can intervene, Flora fights him off: the business magnate is no match for the diva. But McLellan is really funny in this role and spices up the normally more heavy-handed scene.
Mike Shara plays Cornelius Hackl not only as a comic young man trying to escape his humdrum life into some adventure, but also as a slapstick lover with much goofy physical comedy. Tom McCamus is younger and better looking than the others I’ve seen playing the bush-league tycoon Vangelder. With his effortless, strong voice and commanding presence, he makes Horace more appealing than usual but just as funny. And Seanna McKenna is an appealing leading lady as always, if not so quirky a Dolly as others I’ve seen.
It’s a very interesting and distinctive-looking period production, handsomely designed, but that much is understood when we see the name Santo Loquasto on the program.
This was a perfect ending for the opening week of Stratford’s 60th season – a delicious, fun play with much colorful value of its own, in a pleasing production that was a party in itself. I can’t imagine seeing it and not enjoying it.