(Pam Nolte as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Taproot Theatre’s production of The Matchmaker; photo by Erik Stuhaug)
It’s surprisingly easy to mistakenly associate Thornton Wilder’s theater — or at least his most-famous plays — with feel-good, homespun, Norman Rockwell Americana. (Whether that represents a mistaken idea of Norman Rockwell is another question.) A similarly false impression clings to the widespread image of Aaron Copland, who even composed a score for the 1940 film of Our Town and later considered basing on opera on it — though the playwright declined, countering: “I write amusical plays.”
Of course The Matchmaker, a Broadway and West End hit in 1955 after it bombed in its earlier 1938 incarnation as The Merchant of Yonkers, did morph into the musical Hello, Dolly! in the following decade. But the brassy success of the latter — which, admittedly, I’ve never been able to fathom — only reinforced the notion that Wilder’s play is just another charming twist on the happy alliance between romance and the American Dream.
The new production of The Matchmaker currently on the boards at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre is certainly entertaining. But in director Scott Nolte’s version, it also welcomely embraces Wilder’s deft homage to a vanished, rawer era of American theater-making. For the most part, there’s no embarrassed smoothing-over of the popular farce — complete with its own character types — that was already a fossil when Wilder devised this valentine to it.
(Asha Stichter and Natalie Moe as Minnie Fay and Irene; photo by Erik Stuhaug)
Apart from an opening scene that drags, this Matchmaker is delightfully paced and benefits from a consistently focused ensemble energy. The renegade store clerk Cornelius Hackl (given an especially winning turn by Robert Hinds) and the scheming, ambitious milliner Irene Molloy (Natalie Anne Moe, channeling the moxie of Gretchen Mol’s Gillian on Boardwalk Empire) make their wide-eyed anticipation plausible when they remark: “The world is full of wonderful things!”
However “amusical” he may have thought his plays, Wilder’s build-up of the confrontations between the tyrannical merchant Horace Vandergelder and his underlings feels genuinely scherzo-like. Nolte makes room for the other concerns Wilder voices through the pleasure-seeking vehicle of his farcical plot.
(Robert Hinds and Brad Walker as Cornelius and Barnaby; photo by Erik Stuhaug)
As these characters become entangled in mixed-up or feigned identities and search for mates and fortunes, they muse about the things that really matter to them. Against the backdrop of the Gilded Age and its class differences — effectively telegraphed by Sarah Burch Gordon’s delightful palette of costumes — Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker in question (among other dubious pursuits), realizes it’s time to let go of memories of her late husband and “live among human beings” again: to be “a fool among fools” once more rather than “a fool alone.” Pam Nolte (Scott Nolte’s wife) animates her portrayal of the ever-confident Dolly with a well-calibrated hint of her disappointments.
Along with his humanist touches, Wilder works in a trenchant commentary on the greedy excess to which the drive for material success can lead. “The difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that, also, can shatter the world,” observes Dolly, who espouses her own economic theory of “spread-it-around” capitalism. “Everybody thinks when he gets rich he’ll be a different kind of rich person from the rich people he sees around him,” Cornelius says. “Later on he finds out there’s only one kind of rich person. And he’s it.”
The point gets rather blunted in Robert Gallaher’s approach to Horace Vandergelder. Instead of the authoritarian, hard-as-nails “monster” who intimidates everyone, secure in his “half million,” Gallaher comes through as too domesticated, even mildly bemused by his sense of superiority.
(Robert Gallaher as Horace Vandergelder; photo by Erik Stuhaug)
Brad Walker, on the other hand, makes a memorable impression by playing up his character type as Barnaby Tucker, the naive sidekick to Cornelius in search of “an adventure” on their self-declared day off. So does Kim Morris in her hilarious depiction of the eccentric Miss Flora, the friend of Dolly and Horace’s late wife. During the denouement in her New York house (a surprise for anyone who knows only Hello, Dolly!), Wilder uses Miss Flora to parody treacly sentiments about “true love.”
Mark Lund’s simple sets (including a painted urban backdrop) and sound design transform the small stage area into 1880s New York with a bare minimum of suggestion. The real time change is conveyed through Wilder’s earthy language — spiced at times with clever, Oscar Wilde-like turns of phrase — and the actors’ demeanor, though, and it all plays out as less dated than you might expect.
–Thomas May (C) 2013 All rights reserved.