I went from thinking, “This is going to be a very long night,” to laughing uncontrollably. That is an excellent trajectory.
Thornton Wilder wrote his farce The Matchmaker in 1954. It’s probably best known today as the play that Hello, Dolly! is based on.
Set in the 1890s, the story is about Dolly Gallagher Levi, who is pretending to find a bride for Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy merchant from Yonkers. But Dolly plans to marry Horace herself. His niece Ermengarde is in love with an impoverished artist named Ambrose. (Horace objects to the match.) And, when the action moves to nearby New York City, breathlessly following of all of the major characters, including Horace’s clerks, 30-year-old Cornelius and 17-year-old Barnaby, a third romance emerges: Cornelius falls for a widow named Irene Malloy, whom Horace is also courting. (It’s a farce: love knots are a part of the fun.)
It takes a while for that fun to arrive, however. Director Ashlie Corcoran’s production digs itself into a bit of a ditch in its opening scenes, which are set in Horace’s general store.
As scripted, the set-up is off-putting: Horace is a bellowing bully who overworks his employees and dominates his niece; Dolly is only interested in him for his money.
There are problems in the production, too. Ric Reid fills Horace with the requisite comic energy but, on opening night, he stumbled on his lines a couple of times off the top—and few things undermine comedy as quickly as uncertainty does. (Later, Reid regained his plumb line and delivered a fine performance.) Other elements also blunt the humour: vocally, Nicola Lipman (Dolly) is muted throughout the evening and so is Nadeem Phillip, who’s playing Ambrose; overall, Phillip offers a sentimental performance that lacks the crisp comic commitment farce requires. Julie Leung is simply lost as Ermengarde; all that she can think of to do, it seems, is waggle the oversized bustle provided by costumer Drew Facey.
Then suddenly we’re in New York City in Irene’s hat shop and the evening takes off. This chunk of the play is mostly about four characters: the clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, who have snuck off to New York to have fun, and their newfound friends and love interests Irene and her assistant Minnie.
This material works partly because we quickly invest in the innocent romance between Cornelius and Irene. It also works because the four primary players deliver energetic, inspired, and stylistically consistent performances.
Cornelius talks about the sparks that fire from Irene’s eyes and, I swear to God, you can see those sparks in Naomi Wright’s portrait: comic actors should always be having as much fun as Wright is having here. Minnie is as meek as Irene is bold and Georgia Beaty plays Minnie’s mousey hysteria to a tee. Minnie gets a little sozzled later in the play and Beaty does a lovely bit of comic business in which Minnie sensually strokes the fringe on a lampshade, then catches herself and coyly curtsies to the lamp before leaving the room. As a director, Corcoran deserves credit for opening up the space for this kind of inventiveness.
Talking about directorial space and actorly invention, just wait till you see what Tyrone Savage does as Cornelius. When that character gets caught somewhere he shouldn’t be, he takes at least three minutes to crawl across the floor, hoping to avoid detection. Pulling that off takes confidence.
Actor Daniel Doheny finds both emotional truth and endless surprises in Barnaby’s innocence. He delivers some excellent physical business, too. Clue: tablecloth.
When we get to the hat shop, Drew Facey’s costume design also comes together. For the most part, the costumes in Vandergelder’s store are what you’d expect from the period but, in the millinery store, the anomalies from the early going take over and—gloriously—run amok. Though we’re in the 1890s, that period overlaps weirdly with the present: Irene and Minnie wear short skirts, bustles, corsets, patterned leggings, and fabulous, brightly coloured little boots. In the palette, there’s a whole lot of cantaloupe-to-coral going on—often accented with smoky teal. The design feeds Corcoran’s sensibility for the show, which is as free-spirited as all get-out.
Similar colours—as well as jungle greens—dominate the set, which Facey also dreamt up: he wraps the proscenium in an art nouveau picture frame, then drops various rooms behind that. Thanks largely to Facey, this Matchmaker looks fantastic.
There are a couple more performances that I want to talk about. Scott Bellis plays a drunk named Malachi Stack. At first, I wondered why Corcoran was squandering an actor of Bellis’s stature on what I thought was a throwaway role, but then playwright Wilder and Bellis showed me what was up: Malachi is a wit and philosopher of some substance.
Then there’s Nora McLellan, who plays Ermengarde’s aunt, Mrs. Flora Van Huysen. This part is a cameo but, if you were to wear McLellan’s performance as a locket, it would break your neck: it’s huge—and I mean that in a good way. McLellan is in a world of her own: operatic, melodramatic, and hilarious. Her Flora gesticulates wildly, sings literal arias, and whacks other characters with her giant fan. Because the proceedings are already frantic by the time Flora arrives, McLellan’s fireworks work.
As the evening ripens, Lipman’s performance remains casual, but reveals more of Dolly’s depth.
Wilder’s script is sometimes old-fashioned and creaky. For me, there’s not a lot of mileage left in the supposedly inherent differences between the sexes, for instance, and some of the plot turns don’t make sense: when Cornelius and Barnaby are in danger of being caught by Horace in Irene’s hat shop, for instance, why don’t they just leave when they have the chance?
I don’t really care about any of that, though because The Matchmaker made me laugh as helplessly as if I were being tickled—and because the play’s philosophical rewards are significant. Basically, Wilder is saying, “Seize the moment. Be generous. Enjoy one another’s imperfect company.” The ghost of Dolly’s first husband Ephraim hovers over the proceedings, reminding us that life is short.
Getting more thematically explicit, one of Wilder’s characters says, “Have adventures.” In other words, have fun.
So go have fun with The Matchmaker.
THE MATCHMAKER by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, January 30. Continues until February 24.Tickets.
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