Chicago Theatre Review
Just the Right Amount of Adventure
The Matchmaker – Goodman Theatre
“Isn’t the world full of wonderful things?” asks Cornelius Hackl, the 33-year-old chief clerk who’s suddenly broke away from his daily routine existence and traveled to New York City for “just the right amount of adventure.” Like so many of us, he’s had his fill of working nonstop at a job that’s going nowhere, and he’s tired of hearing other people’s stories about their exciting lives. Cornelius has even convinced Barnaby, his young coworker, to join him. Together they’ve pooled all their ready cash and they’re determined to enjoy everything that turn-of-the-century Manhattan has to offer. The two men plan to have a good meal, become in danger, almost get arrested and spend all their money. And one more thing: they’re not coming home until they’ve kissed a girl.
Thornton Wilder’s play, based upon a series of other stories and less successful plays (and later adapted into the popular musical, “Hello Dolly”), is a clever and congenial comedy about living life to its fullest. The playwright reminds us, through so many of his characters, that life is lived best with a balance of sitting quietly at home and taking a chance on some exciting, new experiences. Wilder also provides important lessons concerning love and companionship, acquiring the proper amount of vices and having just the right amount of money. As Dolly, the titular matchmaker, advises, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”
The play mainly tells the story of three couples, all attempting to find companionship and some well-deserved moments of adventure. Dolly Levi is a widow who makes ends meet by performing odds jobs. Her primary occupation at this time is serving as matchmaker for Horace Vandergelder, “the well-known half millionaire.” While arranging dates for Mr. Vandergelder, Dolly is secretly planning to marry Horace herself. Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, is in love with artist, Ambrose Kemper. However, Horace, who believes that artists are destined to always be poor, is determined to keep the two lovers apart. Mrs. Levi, a friend to everyone, is equally determined to bring the two lovebirds together. In the course of events, Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder’s long-suffering chief clerk, becomes envious of the adventures everyone around him is enjoying. He decides that, accompanied by his fellow worker, Barnaby Tucker, they’ll close Vandergelder’s store and head off to New York City. While there, in “one of those chance meetings,” the two men come to know milliner Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay. During that afternoon and evening an attraction develops between them.
Wilder’s four-act comedy begins in Yonkers and moves to several New York City locales. Scenic designer Neil Patel has designed four lovely fragmentary sets. They each build upon his basic steel girder structure, that’s a reminder of the railroad that conveys everyone to and from and around New York City. Jenny Mannis has designed and built some gorgeous period costumes, from Dolly’s golden Harmonia Gardens gown to Ermengarde’s nautical blue traveling ensemble. Henry Wishcamper directs his comedy with style and flair, employing rapid-fire dialogue and expert pacing, befitting a farce.
The cast is superb. Kristine Nielsen, so wonderful on Broadway in Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” is splendid as Dolly Levi. At times looking and sounding a little like Charlotte Rae from TV’s “The Facts of Life,” Ms. Nielsen deftly delivers her wordy dialogue with fluency, fervor and intelligence. The talented actress knows how to mine every drop of comedy from her honest portrayal of this gregarious widow, a woman who’s in love with life and ready to rejoin the human race. Ms. Nielsen is reason enough to see this thoroughly enjoyable production. However, Allen Gilmore makes a wryly comic Horace Vandergelder. In between his outbursts of frustration, Mr. Gilmore, so grand and masterful, brings out all the charm that only Dolly seems to have noticed. He’s funny, powerful and commanding, without ever overpowering his numerous scene partners.
Postell Pringle, one of the creators of the Q Brothers Christmas Carol, is delightful as Cornelius Hackl. He and the agile Behzad Dabu, as Barnaby Tucker, make a great comic team. Their antics in Mrs. Molloy’s Hats for Ladies is one of the funniest scenes in the play. As Irene Molloy, the stunning, brilliantly funny Elizabeth Ledo comes close to stealing the show. Every scene, every expertly-delivered line of dialogue and every sideways glance’s carefully chosen and honestly portrayed. For a great lesson in comic acting, one only need study the divine, Ms. Ledo.
Other fine performances are turned in by a delightful Theo Allyn as Vandergelder’s badgered niece, Ermengarde. Thankfully, Ms. Allyn doesn’t play this role constantly wailing and weeping, as many actresses do. In Ms. Allyn’s hands, Ermengarde’s a strong young woman who knows her heart and simply needs a little help and support from those around her. Marilyn Dodds Frank is hilarious as Flora Van Huysen, a longtime friend of the deceased Mrs. Vandergelder, and a soulmate to all young lovers. Very melodramatic, given to mood swings and an addiction to smelling salts, Ms. Frank creates one of the play’s most lovingly memorable characters.
Kudos to the Goodman Theatre for bringing back this funny, heartwarming play by one of America’s finest playwrights. Thanks, too, for presenting it with such style, polish and finesse. Kristine Nielsen and the rest of this ensemble makes this comedy sing. It’s a joyous way to herald in the Spring and it offers up so many important life lessons in such a charming, humorous manner. We should all remember that a good balance of cozy calm and exciting experiences is what makes life interesting. Cultivating just one vice, acquiring just the proper amount of money and living life to its fullest, as Thornton Wilder would say, makes the world go round.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 5-April 10 by the Goodman Theatre in the Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com