In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review an important regional revival, Asolo Rep’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. Here’s an excerpt.
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The best American play, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” is also the most popular American play. While this is a nice coincidence—if you want to call it that—Wilder’s other full-length plays don’t get done much nowadays, in part because everybody does “Our Town” instead of “The Skin of Our Teeth” or “The Matchmaker,” which ran on Broadway for 486 performances but hasn’t returned there since it closed in 1957.
In both cases, scale is also part of the problem: It takes 16 actors to do “The Matchmaker” and more than two dozen for “The Skin of Our Teeth,” on top of which “The Matchmaker” requires four sets, thus putting it out of the reach of cash-conscious drama companies. In addition, “The Matchmaker” has the further disadvantage of having been turned into a musical, Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” The colossal success of Herman’s brassy simplification of Wilder’s play inevitably pushed “The Matchmaker” still further into the wings, where it seemed fated to remain until Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre came along. Asolo Rep is a professional theater company that is also a drama school, meaning that it can cast student actors in smaller parts. This allows it to produce rarely seen large-cast Broadway plays like “Once in a Lifetime,” which it mounted to splendid effect in 2012. “The Matchmaker” is another natural choice for the company, and I’m overjoyed to report that Asolo has done right by one of the sweetest and smartest romantic farces ever written.
“The Matchmaker,” like Tom Stoppard’s “On the Razzle,” is freely based on “Einen jux will er sich machen,” an 1842 comedy by the Viennese farceur Johann Nestroy. If you’ve seen “Hello, Dolly!” (and who hasn’t?) then you know the plot, in which Horace Vandergelder (Steve Hendrickson), a grumpy businessman-widower of a certain age, seeks the counsel of Dolly Levi (Peggy Roeder), an impecunious matchmaker of like vintage, and ends up popping the question to her instead of the much younger milliner (Olivia Williamson) with whom Dolly purports to be setting him up. This being a farce, what Dolly really has in mind for the unwitting Horace is—of course—exactly what happens as the curtain falls…
According to Wilder, “The Matchmaker” is a parody of the stock-company farces that he saw as a boy. But it’s also a wholly serious restatement of the theme that he first explored in “Our Town,” which is the importance of making the most of the “world full of wonderful things” in which we live….
Peter Amster, who staged Asolo’s excellent 2013 revival of “You Can’t Take It With You,” another budget-busting Broadway hit, has done comparable justice to “The Matchmaker,” taking Wilder’s script seriously (though always with the lightest of touches) rather than using it as a point of departure for directorial foozling. Mr. Hendrickson, whose booming, raspy voice and hair-trigger irascibility recall George C. Scott, is ideal as Horace, and Ms. Roeder’s no-nonsense Jewish-grandma Dolly is just the woman to awaken his shriveled soul….
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Read the whole thing here.
The theatrical trailer for the 1958 film version of The Matchmaker, directed by Joseph Anthony, adapted from Wilder’s play by John Michael Hayes, and starring Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi: