A Good Match

Live Theatre Workshop's 'The Matchmaker' pairs the audience with a quality play.

Unfashionably optimistic and eclipsed by its musical remake, Hello, Dolly, Thornton Wilder's 1954 farce The Matchmaker would be a mere Broadway footnote by now if it weren't such a wonderful play. Funny but not idiotic, warm but not sentimental, lively but not chaotic, The Matchmaker reminds us that writers and actors can make us laugh heartily without treating us like morons.

Live Theatre Workshop has mounted an amiable and endearing production of the play. It isn't the last word on the subject; one can quibble with some of the acting choices, and the need for four sets strains the small company's resources, although some ingenuity has gone into solving the scenic problems. Still, this is a wonderful way to spend an evening.

The matchmaker of the title is Dolly Levi, who is trying to provide a fitting spouse for wealthy Yonkers businessman Horace Vandergelder. It's the late 1880s, and, luckily for Vandergelder, labor laws are lax. He works his store clerks hard, and bans any element of foolishness from his business and private life. Foolishness includes being young, and being in love.

His clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, wouldn't mind having at least one night a week to find out what being young is like. When Dolly takes Vandergelder to New York City to inspect a couple of potential spouses--even though Dolly is scheming to become the next Mrs. Vandergelder herself--the naïve clerks close the shop and, with some trepidation, sneak off to Manhattan's Bowery in search of adventure. They find it in the form of milliner Irene Malloy, the young widow Vandergelder has been courting.

This being a farce, things become quite complicated, with Cornelius and Barnaby continually in danger of running into their wrathful boss, Dolly manipulating people right and left, and Vandergelder's young niece having a night on the town with her forbidden suitor, an artist who apparently works with toxic oils; actor Rick Windon shuffles like he needs to have his tubes ventilated.

Blessedly free of Jerry Herman's generic show tunes, The Matchmaker is one of those plays that manages to be hilarious even though its lines aren't particularly funny out of context. That's because the humor arises from well-defined characters contending with situations in which plans inevitably go awry; these aren't cardboard figures draping cheap punch lines over a spindly plot.

Some directors and actors try to make Vandergelder a loveable curmudgeon, but softening his meanness only lowers the stakes for most of the other characters; what do they have to lose if they know the cuddly boss/uncle will forgive them in the end? Fortunately, that's not a problem in this production. Bruce Bieszki is especially adept at playing imperious antagonists, and he resists any impulse to make Vandergelder a nicer man than the character Wilder provides.

Many actors bring consistent mannerisms to every role; Bieszki's trademark, for example, is a staccato delivery with luftpausen worthy of William Shatner. Other performers are more chameleon-like, which brings us to Kristi Loera as Dolly. It can be hard to remember what else you've seen Loera in because she throws herself so fully into individualizing every character. Her Dolly is conniving and theatrical, a woman who can't quite be trusted to do anything except assure her own survival. Oddly, in the play's first scene, it's as if director Jeremy Thompson had crawled right into Loera's skin, because Loera's performance exactly mirrors Thompson's own approach to many of his past comedic roles: arch, wily and a little over the top.

Going her own way is Maria Fletcher as Mrs. Malloy; she's lively, cunning and determined not to seem vulnerable except when it's to her advantage. Fletcher is a smart and watchable performer; let's hope she starts landing more roles around town. As the earnest Cornelius, Matt Walley manages to be so self-effacing in his first scene that his flowering as a major character comes as a delightful surprise and makes Dolly's later claims that Cornelius is a well-known man about town all the funnier.

Standing out from the remainder of the large and able cast are the appealing Sean Montgomery as young Barnaby, and John McRostie as Vandergelder's less-than-virtuous factotum. McRostie performs with a bumptious savvy worthy of a Shakespearean philosopher-fool. And that makes sense; Wilder's The Matchmaker is the greatest Shakespearean light comedy of the mid-20th century.

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