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Weak Wilder

The Matchmaker at the Loeb in repertoire

By Elizabeth Samuels

Looking like a nineteenth century candy sampler resting on a mammoth paper doily, the printed scrim that greets the Loeb audience is engagingly nostalgic. Unfortunately, the production of The Matchmaker that unfolds behind it is as overly sweet as the candy one would expect to find in the box.

The play itself approaches the naivete within us all and the oftentimes too narrow confines of our existence with the madcap and improbable style that good farce demands. All the elements of farce are present and accounted for--mistaken identities, chance meetings, characters hiding beneath tables and inside closets, young innocents seeking thrills and happiness, a pig-headed miser trying to foil them, and minor characters of vast experience and questionable virtue. What the play point-blank suggests to the audience, in the moral pronounced before the final curtain, is that we should all free ourselves for some adventure in life. And with the small-town good sense that is so embarassing but so affecting in Our Town. Thornton Wilder recommends just enough excitement to keep us from longing unhappily when we are sitting quietly at home.

The line, however, between charming farce of an innocent 1880's and the hideously sappy antics of a Booth Tarkington imagined era can be very thin. When the older clerk in miser Vandergelder's store convinces the junior employee that they should each kiss a girl on their secret daylong journey from Yonkers into New York, the boy protests. "I'm thirty-three," says Cornelius. "I've got to begin sometime." "I'm only seventeen," Barnaby retorts: "It isn't so urgent for me." It's an aptly humorous exchange. But when Barnaby does receive a kiss, the stage directions call for him to spin around and fall on his knees.

In treading this dangerous line, the production at the Loeb, placing too much emphasis on the artificial cuteness of The Matchmaker and too little on the human comedy, makes one wonder if the concept of naivete describes the play itself rather than the subject of the comedy. Well-played farce ought to exaggerate normal human foibles, arousing the sympathy of the audience. This production tends to pervert the characters' behavior in form as well as degree. While some of the straightforward humor of the farce remains intact, much of its charm is swallowed up in the overdone quaintness of the show.

The craftsmanship of the company in this first of three plays in repertory is obviously professional quality. But even though the elements of the production work together smoothly, often creating an effective piece of action, the misplaced emphasis is a disadvantage throughout. The performances sometimes border on caricature, and are additionally ill-served by oatlandishly colorful costumes designed to make the characters look like antique dolls.

Both Patricia Falkenhain as the good-hearted but overwhelmingly managerial Dolly Gallagher Levi, who schemes to put Vandergelder's life in order and his money in circulation, and Robert Ferringer as Vandergelder himself, turn in polished performances. However, they too suffer from the production's overall tone and from a too-hurried pace (perhaps aggravated by opening night uncomfortableness).

And even in an optimal production, Falkenhain would probably fail to attain the stature of an ideal Dolly. She lacks both the subtlety to express her understanding of those whose lives she arranges, and a commanding presence over them. Oddly enough, she plays the part with the voice and gestures of the typically bossy Brooklyn Jewish mother--odd because Dolly's name indicates that she is an Irish girl who only married a Jew.

Most of the portrayals are equally competent if occasionally irritating. Daniel Von Gargen as the artist trying to marry Vandergelder's timid niece Ermengarde often seems too foppishly petulant in his clownish suit. And the cook in the VanHuysen household (to which Ermengarde is sent for safe-keeping), provides a disturbingly vague ethnic element in a frenetic last act which otherwise finally gives itself over to the true spirit of the farce. Was she Swedish, Hungarian, German?

On the other hand, several small parts are done nearly perfectly. Kathleen Perkins wanders about comically decrying life as illusion or delusion or perhaps just "mislaid." Deadpan Archie and Smith stops the show as a cabman--hired by Vandergelder to help separate Ambrose and Ermengarde, but sublimely unruffled by their antics. Best of all is Laurence Senelick as the experienced drunkard Malachi Stack. His monologue on the advisability of nurturing one vice and letting "your virtues spring up modestly around it" is itself worth the price of admission.

Senelick's kind of expertise (echoed in varying degrees by the other actors), together with the excellence and complexity of the repertory's two other offerings, Moon for the Misbegotten and Heartbreak House, make an interesting Loeb summer season likely. Notwithstanding its flaws, even The Matchmaker is amusing.

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