It is just what it always has been, a scrambled, scattered, flyaway farce, full of loose ends, moralizing asides and fascinating people. Its happy endings sprout right down to the footlights, where they speak up, wishing you the same. Enticingly adorned and enjoyably staged, it has the adaptable shape of a beanbag, a pixilated warmth of heart, and aside from being endearing nonsense, it is a lucidly loony play.
Better words could not be found to sum up the current production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, than those of the Chicago Tribune’s great Claudia Cassidy which described The Matchmaker’s first visit to Chicago in March of 1957 at the Blackstone Theatre.
So classic a farce, Wilder’s play could he used as a textbook introduction to comedy itself:
- A conflict between a rigid, life-denying force (personified by wealthy Yonkers merchant Horace Vandegelder, played ferociously by Allen Gilmore) and a loose, free, sunny, life-affirming force (led by Dolly Gallagher Levi, Kristine Nielsen filling the original Dolly’s shoes – Ruth Gordon – with remarkable aplomb). Vandegelder prevents his niece Ermengarde (Theo Allen) from marrying the poor artist Ambrose (Ronobir Lahiri) and his long-suffering employees, Cornelius Hackl (Postell Pringle) and Barnaby Ticker (Behzad Dabu) from advancing their careers. Dolly wants people to marry – Ermengarde to Ambrose, Cornelius to Irene Malloy (Elizabeth Ledo), and herself to Vandegelder.
- Along the way misunderstandings abound, characters don disguises, arrange secret assignations where the wrong person inevitably turns up, hide in closets, under tables, and behind screens, before all of the mistaken identities are discovered and sorted out.
- The triumph of life force occurs when the life-denying force is “forced to recognize something so important about themselves that it completely changes their attitude, paving the way to reconciliation and celebration.” 1 The life-loving melancholic and exotic Flora Van Huysen (Marilyn Dodd Franks) leads Vandegelder into her kitchen for a cup of coffee which causes him to, miraculously, return with two cups off coffee, one for himself and one for Mrs. Levi. He explains that in the kitchen he experienced “a lot of foolishness. Everyone falling in love with everybody.” He has granted Ermengarde permission to marry Ambrose, made Cornelius his business partner and blessed his marriage to Mrs. Malloy, and now seeks Mrs., Levi’s forgiveness before proposing marriage to her.
- A confirmation of Northrop Frye’s observation that “comedy is a vision of dianoia [Thought, one of the six consititent parts of a drama identified by Aristotle] , a significance which is ultimately social significance, the establishment of a desirable society.” 2
The Goodman Theatre has assembled a first rate company to present Wilder’s infrequently performed comedy. Director Henry Wishcamper knows how to move a play along, without sacrificing intelligibility or a sense of ease. In addition, he allows the play to be itself, in all its quirkiness, all the while maintaining a sense of probability about all of the characters and their adventures. (His staging of the dining scene should be seen by all young directors who are baffled as to how to motivate diners to leave their seats.) The actors must enjoy working with him as well, since the production features some excellent performances.
In most Wilder plays at least one character talks to the audience. Wilder talk is unusual. Not monologue, not soliloquy, not narration, the character’s talk probably resembles Wilder’s own unique way of talking. Tyrone Guthrie, the director of the first production of The Matchmaker, describes, the Wilder conversational style:
Wilder is learned, but no pedant. I have never met anyone with so encyclopedic a knowledge of so wide a range of topics. Yet he carries this learning lightly and imparts it – – the important with the trivial, the commonplace with the exceedingly bizarre – in a style and with a gusto which is all his own. 3
Actors shine when they succeed in finding the key to one of their Wilder “arias.”
Postell Pringle is one.* If you have only seen him as part of a Q Brothers production, then his Cornelius Hackl will come as a revelation to you. He is a consummate actor. Mr. Pringle finds layer upon layer in this seemingly flat character, and communicates the stock clerk’s evolution with great finesse. His “Isn’t the world full of wonderful things?’ aria is a high point of the production.
Likewise, Marc Grapey shines as the ne’er-do-well would-be stock clerk, Malachi Stack. Mr. Grapey somehow makes the character’s world-weariness endearing, and with the best period New York accent of the bunch, belts a Kyle Schwarber size home run with his “A purse” aria.
But any production of The Matchmaker rises or falls on the back of the actress playing the matchmaker herself, Dolly Gallagher Levi. Any musings about how Ruth Gordon might have been in the role disappear as Kristine Nielsen quietly and permanently takes control of the stage. Like her male counterpart, Nathan Lane, Ms. Nielsen is both a personality and a talent. Her plastic face, devilish eyes, and ever-moving fingers constitute an irresistible force of nature. She can suddenly move her voice from upper to lower range and instantly boost the stakes of any scene. Her great aria, “Ephraim Levi I’m going to get married again.’ is not just the climax of the play, but also a glorious capstone to a great performance. Claudia Cassidy’s appraisal of Ruth Gordan fits Ms. Nielsen to a tee:
Superbly in command. Here is a marvelous high comedy performance which scorns no trick of low comedy style. This Mrs. Levi is a glittering schemer, a bewitching fraud, and an admirably honest woman. She makes the audience jump through hoops and like it.
But actors don’t need arias to shine in this production. Elizabeth Ledo’s Irene Malloy is a fireplug of energy and determination. Barnaby Tucker (originally played by Robert Morse) when played by Behzad Dabu is a Zoloft-free ADDer, the perfect counterpart to Pringle’s measured Hackl. And Ron Rains, a man who takes throw-away roles and polishes them into gems, does the same with the waiter. He can hold an audience rapt simply preparing to bow a rip saw intermezzo tune.
Thornton Wilder had a unique fondness for Chicago. “No city he loved more than he loved Chicago…He made Chicago his city….’The years at [The University of] Chicago] were among the happiest in my life’.” 4 Neil Patel’s lovely multi-purpose set seems to pay homage to Chicago by framing the action with elevated tracks, an architectural feature common to both the city Wilder loved and the city in which his play is set, New York.
Barnaby, speaking for the playwright, gives an epilogue in which he hopes the audience will find just the right amount of adventure and just the right amount of sitting at home. The Goodman Theatre’s The Matchmaker offers just the right amount of sitting and just the right amount of adventure in one wonderful event.
1 Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.
2 Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957.
3 Guthrie, Tyrone. A Life in the Theatre. New York: Limelight Editions, 1985.
4Niven, Penelope. Thornton Wilder: A Life. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.
*Mr. Pringle was my student at Bates College.