Strange things happen in the first act of Thernton Wilder's new comedy. Wealthy Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder, despite his belief that "99 percent of the people in the world are fools, and the rest of us we in great danger of contigioa," decides to rejoin the fools and get married again. Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, two conscientious clerks in Vandergelder's store, imperiously decide to close the place up and head for New York City, where, for the first time in their lives, they may perhaps get to kiss a girl. And Mrs. Levi, the widowed "matchmaker" whom Vandergelder has commissioned to find him a wife, resolves to direct all her professional talents toward becoming Mrs. Vandergelder herself. Purely in the interest of Mr. Wilder's comedy, all these characters have apparently agreed to renounce their customary lives and create as many funny situations as possible.
Given this obliging plot material, the playwright has a relatively easy task. He simply sends all his main characters off to New York on separate missions and arranges, during the three remaining acts, for them to turn up together in various embarrassing circumstances. One might say that the proceedings get progressively wilder and Wilder.
The author has, in fact, produced a wonderfully funny comedy by combining two very different comic techniques. He has gone back several centuries for gimmicks like people hidden in closets, boys dressed as girls, chairs pulled out from under their prospective occupants, burlesque dialect and gestures, and even bad jokes. But Wilder has not forgotten the innovating spirit of his Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth days, either. Every main character in The Matchmaker has at least one outright soliloquy in which he steps up to the footlights and blatantly tells the audience his thoughts and motivations, and at the end each of them gives his own idea of the moral of the play. Far from being awkward, Wilder's soliloquys present humor with a timing and characterization that are charming and often hilarious. The Matchmaker is, on the whole, an ingenious interweaving of slapstick and intellectual humor.
But slapstick is a theatrical narcotic, and both Wilder and director Tyrone Guthric almost inhale too much of the stuff. Having written the play expressly for Ruth Gordon in the role of Mrs. Levi, the author has given her too many lines that depend on dialect alone. Guthrie has compounded the peccadillo by letting Miss Gordon maintain her rasping voice too loud for too much of the time. The result, especially when Loring Smith is sharing the scene as the booming and gesticulating Vandergelder, is a shouting match that numbs the audience and detracts from those scenes wherein pandemonium reigns legitimately.
Otherwise, Miss Gordon brings out beautifully the changing tactics of Mrs. Levi in her matrimonial campaign: subtle flattery at the start; then reverse psychology, as she warns Vandergelder not to propose marriage because his household is too messy for any woman to run; and finally, when victory is secure, wifely nagging. Smith, too, gets nearly the maximum amount of laughs out of his lines; Eileen Herlie is suitably fluttery as a milliner; and Arthur Hill and Robert Morse are expertly naive as the two clerks. The settings are generous in number (four) but deficient in imagination--only in the last, a living room of riotiously poor taste, does designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch make the most of her opportunities.
Aside from a slight over-accent on the burlesque, The Matchmaker is a thoroughly enjoyable play. In addition, it furnishes the much-needed proof that a successful comedy need not revolve around an army tent or a bedroom.