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A Match Made In Heaven: The Matchmaker at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

When the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced last year that this season they would present Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker on the Festival Stage, I was, at best, ambivalent. I didn’t know the play, and was only aware of it as the source material for Hello, Dolly!, a musical for which I have no particular love (I saw a production of the stage musical in Stratford years ago that was reasonably fun, but didn’t convince me that it’s a great musical, and the movie is execrable). But then I rented the movie, “The Matchmaker,” based on Wilder’s straight play, and was quite thoroughly charmed. So maybe I had something to look forward to after all.

I had no idea how much.

The current Stratford production of The Matchmaker is a thorough delight. Literally every performer in the cast is in top form. Tom McCamus shows us only a whisker of his usual wolfish sex appeal as Horace Vandergelder – just enough so we have some expectation that Dolly Levi might see something in him besides a bag of money. And Seana McKenna underplays Dolly very smartly, making her a keen observer of the human species rather than a mere busybody, and just of convinced of its folly as Horace is (more evidence that they belong together). She reminded me a bit of my late mother-in-law – and I mean that (in this case) as a compliment. As the young head clerk from Vandergelder’s store in Yonkers, Mike Shara (actually, he’s not so young – he’s 33 and still hasn’t had an adventure) plays a perfect lead in a romantic comedy as Cornelius Hackl, dancing on the blade of a knife, while his more definitively youthful companion, Josh Epstein, rivals a baby panda for adorableness. And Laura Condlln was a revelation as the frustrated widow Irene Molloy, so full of love mixed with rue. And I could go on – Geraint Wyn Davies as the besotted Malachi Stack, the stunningly gorgeous Andrea Runge vanishing utterly into the mousy role of Minnie Fay, Victor Dolhai making a complete character out of the virtually line-less tormented waiter, August.

And the pacing of the play is spot-on. This is a complicated thing, because much of the play consists of farce – men hiding in closets, diners hiding behind screens in restaurants, male characters hiding in women’s clothing – but Wilder stops the action repeatedly to have various characters address the audience directly. There’s a real risk that these could get sappy, and that the changes of pace would induce a kind of theatrical car sickness. But nothing of the sort happens.

The key, I think, is that the play is directed with utter sincerity. I remember Brian Bedford once saying that, in playing Lady Bracknell, the way to get a real laugh is to play the lines completely straight, with utter conviction. Based on this production, I think the same thing is true of The Matchmaker. Over and over again, I was struck by the conviction the actors brought to their roles. When Laura Condlln’s Irene Molloy says, “the world is full of wonderful things,” I practically thought she was tearing up on-stage – but I also believed her when she talked about fighting being the best part of marriage, and how she was going to marry Horace Vandergelder because he looked like he’d be a good fighter. The line was funny because it was played as true, because it was true – true about her, and true, unfortunately, about life. (I turned to my wife and said: that’s the girl for me. She was not amused.)

Indeed, it’s striking the degree to which this is a sweet and delightful play about people who start out very frustrated and unhappy. Horace Vandergelder is a miserable old miser with no friends since the death of his first wife, who plans to marry, basically, because he’s earned enough to afford to be an idiot. Cornelius Hackl is a frustrated clerk with no prospects for advancement who’s 33 and never kissed a girl. Irene Molloy has been slaving away at her hat shop since she was widowed, and has lived a spotlessly respectable (and consequently lonely) life for business reasons, only to discover that she’s still assumed to be of ill repute. And Dolly Levi admits in a deeply felt soliloquy addressed to her dead first husband (lot of dead spouses in this play, too) that she’s marrying Horace Vandergelder for his money, because she’s tired. These people discover that life is full of wonderful things not because everything works out in the end (though it does), but because they see what is beautiful in people who are as sad as themselves. That’s lovely, and not at all trivial.

I would still heartily recommend the movie as a companion to the stage production, though I thought Ms. McKenna and Mr. McCamus blew Shirley Booth and Paul Ford out of the water with their performances. (I’d rank Laura Condlln and Mike Shara as worthy competitors of Shirley MacLaine and Tony Perkins – and that’s very high praise for Ms. Condlln and Mr. Shara.) I recommend it because there are some significant plot differences between the movie and the play that I’m still debating to myself about.

The big difference is that the movie cuts the sub-plot about Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, who wishes to marry an artist, Ambrose Kemper, against the wishes of her uncle and guardian. This is the thinnest of the various romantic plots of the play, and so far as I can tell was included mostly to make possible a delicious climactic scene involving threats of forced bathing and other lunacy in the home of Flora van Huysen, an old and trusted friend of Mr. Vandergelder’s late wife. She is played very broadly, in this production, by Nora McLellan, as a zany spiritualist with a history of romantic disappointment, got up in a kimono and terrifying makeup; they could reuse the getup (and the actress, for that matter) in The Mikado next year for the role of Katisha. In the play, all the various characters wind up at Ms. van Huysen’s place, finally sort each other out, and then, offstage, Horace Vandergelder comes to his senses and decides to forgive everybody who’s tricked him over the course of the play, give his blessing to his niece to marry the man she loves, make a partner of his long-suffering head clerk (who can now afford to marry Irene Molly, with whom he’s fallen in love), and to marry Dolly Levi himself and (probably more significant) trust her with his money.

In the movie, all this is cut; instead, we repair to Yonkers, where Dolly Levi helps Cornelius Hackl set up a competing business across the street from Horace Vandergelder. Vandergelder takes Hackl back as a partner in order to stop him from becoming a competitor, and one senses that he marries Dolly Levi for not utterly dissimilar reasons.

I vastly prefer the arc as described in the play to that described in the movie – I believed in Tom McCamus’s conversion, never really in Paul Ford’s. But I regretted the relative weakness of the ending of the Hackl-Molloy plot – I thought Hackl deserved to earn his partnership by his own moxie, not just have it bestowed upon him by a repentant Vandergelder. And while I enjoyed the zaniness of the van Huysen character (my wife thought she was too broad to actually be funny), I didn’t think the Ermengarde plot added anything to the play, and there felt like there was a speech missing that connected van Huysen to Vandergelder, that gave her the authority to be, nominally, the proximate cause of Vandergelder’s decision to rejoin the human race (though it’s Dolly who gets him to shake hands, reminding him that he can always resume fighting later). I would feel silly imagining how one might revise a classic by Thornton Wilder – except that the movie version does exactly that, so you have the opportunity to compare for yourself.

But whether you want to wander into those dramaturgical thickets or not, see the play. The world is full of wonderful things, and this show is one of them.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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