Friday, October 9, 2015

Fools Among Fools: "The Matchmaker" is Classic Comedy

Posted By on Fri, Oct 9, 2015 at 6:46 PM

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A strange deja vous kept me from fully engaging with Playhouse on the Square’s delightful production of Thornton Wilder’s screwball comedy, The Matchmaker. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the play’s musical doppelganger Hello Dolly too many times. Maybe it’s because I studied the play’s English and German source material when I performed in On the Razzle, Tom Stoppard’s Dolly-free version of the story (alongside the same Ann Sharp who’s playing Dolly in the current production at POTS). And yet— weirdly— I’ve never seen Wilder’s popular and influential play. I've never even seen the movie. As a result, so much feels familiar— but not quite right. I constantly found myself anticipating music cues that never came and waiting for gags that never gagged. Then I’d fall right back into a well-told story till the next (not really) missing piece broke the enchantment. Adding to my singular confusion was the mere presence of Sharp and fellow Theatre Memphis mainstay Jude Knight performing in Midtown alongside Dave Landis, a denison of Overton Square.

I hope nobody mistakes any of this for complaint. There’s a reason why the farce is so frequently replicated. The comic architecture is very nearly flawless. (if you really need a synopsis, here). It’s also a perfect vehicle for Wilder’s prescient, unimpeded political messaging. It’s nice to hear levelheaded and cleverly spoken words about how money supposed to work, instead of the usual shouted shitshow talking points.

In this video Ann Sharp, who has performed in The Matchmaker, Hello Dolly, and On the Razzle, admits to deja vous similar to my own. She got over it. 

I’ve got to admit, I sometimes feel like Sharp gets painted into a costume drama corner (and Knight too for that matter). She’s good at it, sure, but always surprises and shines in sharper-edged modern pieces like Rapture, Blister, Burn. Of course she’s a perfect Dolly, and a joy to watch, as she deftly guides all the players toward something like a happy ending. Knight gets the less showy (but more fun) part of a progressive and free thinking lady of means. Michael Gravois’ turn as a fast-talking, hard-drinking man for hire, is a master class in classic clowning.

Stoppard’s busy, wordy version of the story eliminated Dolly Levi and expanded the comic potential of The Matchmaker’s many finely-drawn bit characters. That may be what I missed most (unfairly). Wilder’s scenes are less chaotic but he still makes plenty of room for the coachmen, waiters, merchants, and tourists that enliven the streets, shops and cafes of old New York. Director Irene Crist has also assembled a nice slate of characters to round out the cast. Evan Mann and Benjamin Mcilvain are especially fun as Cornelius and Barnaby, the assistant shopkeeper and apprentice who aren’t going home till they’ve kissed a girl.

Dave Landis cuts a fine figure in Vandergelder’s guild uniform. He is certainly stern enough and stingy enough, and often very funny, though he lacks the swollen chest and peacock strut of a man who loves parading about in brass buttons and tassels. Just a little more misplaced pride would yield a lot more laughter.

Christopher Rhotan’s elegant and versatile, latticework set is my favorite thing about this classic. As for the rest, it’s fun — especially for theater nerds. It’s a bit stuffier than it might be, but only a bit. And the aforementioned nerds and fans of Hello Dolly and other variations on this well worn material should consider themselves warned. Even though you know this isn’t the musical version, or the German version, or the British version, you may experience dissociative moments. Don’t worry— Ms. Levi’s got this.

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