The Matchmaker

By Thornton Wilder (Act Inc.)

Thornton Wilder's farcical comedy The Matchmaker premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1954 and opened on Broadway in 1955, both productions directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who was as good at zaniness as he was at deep, dark stuff. About as classical as a comedy can get, its characters go back to late Aristophanes and Menander and march forward with Western literature until the very present. The Matchmaker has comedy's only plot: Young love is thwarted by a father (figure, in this case) but is forwarded by clever servants and others who have the best interests of everyone at heart. It ends with marriage, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Wilder was interested in adapting plays from one time and/or language to another. He translated French tragedy for Katharine Cornell and adapted A Doll's House for Ruth Gordon, who later created the part of Dolly Levi. The Matchmaker was a reworking of Wilder's own 1938 The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder adapted from an 1842 Viennese farce by Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, which was itself an adaptation of an English farce by John Oxenford. In 1981, Tom Stoppard adapted the Nestroy play as On the Razzle, a production of which the St. Louis Shakespeare Company is opening this coming weekend. One of the great pleasures of the theater is that what goes around keeps going around. Originality is only occasionally an artistic virtue. Imitation is much more productive.

Act Inc.'s production of The Matchmaker, which closed last weekend, offered a reasonable interpretation of the play and generally adequate performances by the players. Tim Grumich as Cornelius Hackl, the chief clerk of the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (John Harrington Smith), was well above adequate, however. Grumich has the bright, darting eyes and the quick, nervous smile of a young Buddy Hackett. But he is not round, just plumper than he was when he finished high school. In short, he is handsome in a funny-looking way. Add mastery of lines (including speaking them clearly), vivid body language and close to split-second timing, and you get the sort of performance that makes nonprofessional theater so worthwhile for its audience. Grumich received first-rate support from Paul Hufker (as Barnaby Tucker), who also knows a thing or two about farce. So does Liz Hopefl, who made Irene Molloy as funny a feisty young widow as she made the rich bitch in The Curious Savage, Act Inc.'s other production this summer.

I was told that Smith stepped into the part of Horace Vandergelder a little bit late in the game and thus deserves some slack. He is perhaps too old for the part, although not by much, and certainly too dignified for physical farce. His lines did not emerge with the snap and vigor the part really should have. Few actors in town, on the other hand, can roar much more effectively than Smith, and Vandergelder roars a good deal, but he becomes more and more tentative, less sure of himself, as the play goes on. Thus, when Smith's Vandergelder behaves with humility by the end of the second act, we are surprised a little but gratifyingly prepared for the sea change.

Eleanor Mullin was the production's Dolly Levi, a role often filled by busy, birdlike, full-bosomed wrens of actors, hopping around distractedly. Mullin is tall and by nature seems graciously and warmly upper class. The warmth is necessary for Dolly, but Mullin's upright, imposing figure and pear-shaped tones seem to place Dolly on Fifth Avenue with the swells, not on the sidewalks of New York, where a woman of Irish background who has married a Viennese (not German) Jew would more naturally belong. She seems to scold, every once in a while, rather than just dither, which one feels Dolly does to cover up that clever mind whirring away underneath. But there are as many Dollys as there are actors and directors, and a logical, clear-sighted Dolly has a validity that Mullin toys with most interestingly. The production pronounced Dolly's married name "Lee vai," which is only for the jeans, instead of the correct "Leh vee" or "Lee vee." That's the sort of thing someone should ask around about.

Tim Grumich was responsible for the minimal but quite effective changing sets; Brent Harris' lighting was pretty good. Pat Rosenbaum's costumes, however, were a hodgepodge and not thought out -- a handsome, well-fitting black frock coat on an Irish male servant, for instance, or a cheap long dress on a well-to-do young woman made of a fabric so sleazy it demanded a slip or something underneath for modesty's sake (but didn't have one). Amy Arnott's direction was consistently reasonable but could have done more with physical farce. And things dragged here and there, particularly in the first act. Still, Act Inc.'s The Matchmaker was entertaining enough, and it's always a pleasure to see this great piece of American theater onstage.