There’s something eerie about watching Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” at historic Ford’s Theater. The chestnut is being resurrected on its 50th anniversary by the facility’s new producing director, Paul Tetreault, and it’s presented like a polished artifact borrowed from the museum downstairs. If the farce doesn’t exactly electrify paying patrons — and it’s not likely to — surely it will stir the famous ghosts said to stalk the theater after the audience goes home.
On the surface, a frivolous comedy about social norms of the Victorian age seems an appropriate choice for a theater dedicated to preserving U.S. history. The play is, after all, an important piece of American theater, having spurred Jerry Herman’s musical adaptation “Hello, Dolly!”
But on its own merits, especially from a half-century removed, “Matchmaker’s” weaknesses are obvious. It is a play in which pratfalls represent the highest comedic moments, where dialogue provides a meager amount of wit and where plot and characters are unabashedly simple. In a genre that has grown much since, Wilder’s play is defiantly of another era.
In fact, a new era is what the play represents for Ford’s, since it marks the debut of Tetreault’s tenure assuccessor to the late Frankie Hewett. Promising to elevate programming, the former head of Houston’s Alley Theater opens with an impressive list of talent, including director Mark Lamos, set designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Wade Laboissonniere. Broadway actress Andrea Martin has been tapped to play Dolly Levi.
And for the most part, they deliver. Lamos, who recently staged “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Kennedy Center, keeps the action fast and zany as the plot’s day of misadventure unfolds. Yeargan’s sets are appealing and Laboissonniere’s costumes are sumptuous and authentic.
But the cast is uneven. Martin’s Dolly offers plenty of moxie, but she is strictly business in her matchmaking pursuits and doesn’t really seize the play emotionally. Jonathan Hadary as the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder is an overtly bellicose boss, totally lacking in charm as the play’s clueless foil.
David McNamara and Christopher Hanke add spark as the two wayward adventurers, an excess of pratfalls notwithstanding, and Sarah Zimmerman is adorable as the burned-out owner of a hat shop. Michael Goodwin gives his all as Vandergelder’s opportunistic assistant and Lola Pashalinski is a stitch as the dizzy matron, Flora Van Huysen.
It all adds up to an artistically promising era for Ford’s so long as its productions are something that the theater’s current auds, not just its ghosts, can relate to.