What's in a title? Consider the assortment of monikers associated with Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, now playing at American Conservatory Theater in repertory with The Cherry Orchard: The source for Wilder's work was an 1835 English play titled A Day Well Spent. Wilder first called his version Luck and Pluck, and then renamed it The Merchant of Yonkers for its disastrous 1938 Broadway premiere. He abandoned the play for some 16 years and then revised it as The Matchmaker (which, of course, became the basis for the even more successful Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical Hello, Dolly!).
Aside from dropping the obvious reference to Shakespeare, Wilder's final change acknowledges a shift of focus from the merchant, Horace Vandergelder, to the matchmaker, one Dolly Gallagher Levi. There's also a crafty pun at play — matches being fractious contests as well as ideally harmonious relationships — making Dolly not just an arranger of marriages, but someone in whom one might meet one's Waterloo. As does Horace. This isn't as frivolous as it sounds and indicates that Wilder might have had certain ambitions for the play that he abandoned when the colorful, meddling Dolly took over and outshined everyone else onstage.
At least that was one of the thoughts that occupied me during ACT's mostly entertaining 2-1/2-hour production. Another was the rueful realization that as charming and warm as Jean Stapleton is, she can't hold a candle to Carol Channing, whose amazing performance was available all too recently.
Yet another was to wonder about ACT's choice of such a safe (read: boring) piece of theater — one that provides a pleasant evening's entertainment without much in the way of risk or adventure, adventure being a word that comes up a lot in the play. Virtually all the characters are trying to break out of safe, boring lives, if only for a moment, and experience the thrill associated with high-stakes speculations.
But there's not much risk to be seen on stage at the ACT's Geary when Matchmaker takes over from The Cherry Orchard. Ably directed by Richard Seyd (with serviceable sets by Loy Arcenas, lighting by Peter Maradudin, and costumes by Beaver Bauer), the play sets off at a genial pace and scampers through pleasantly to the end. What else can be done with it? Not much, I'll admit. Why do it at all? Maybe because you have a star like Stapleton and a marvelous leading man (in the person of Ken Ruta) available. To be sure, both actors reach generously into their respective bags of tricks, even if the results are more humdrum than we're used to from either one of them.
The story involves a stingy tyrant of a merchant (endowed with a marvelous comic vanity by Ruta) who, having amassed a sufficient fortune, now wishes to economize further by acquiring a wife: “Marriage,” he confides, “is a bribe to make a housekeeper feel she's a householder.” His intended, the widowed milliner Irene Malloy (Michelle Morain), has been found for him by the enterprising Dolly Levi, who is to accompany him to New York to seal the bargain.
Complications arise as Horace's orderly fiefdom begins to collapse: His home, which he shares with a weepy niece, Ermengarde (Tina Jones), is under attack by Ermengarde's intended, the unworthy (to Horace) artist Ambrose Kemper (Matthew Boston), who wants Ermengarde to elope with him. The shop is also on shaky ground as Horace's two hard-working clerks, Cornelius Hackl (Dan Hiatt) and Barnaby Tucker (Ben Cleaveland), are about to rebel. Then Dolly decides to marry Horace herself. She thereby throws all plans into disarray, seizes the action, and redirects it. Horace doesn't have a chance.
Part of the problem with The Matchmaker is the aforementioned Hello, Dolly! In adapting this free-flowing comedy (which becomes a pie-throwing farce by the end), Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman got out the scissors and did some extensive cutting. Where the dialogue was repetitious, they turned it into a song. They also allowed Dolly to be genuinely adventuresome with her feelings so that her final monologue to her dead husband serves as the emotional climax of the musical. In this production there's no real connection between Dolly and the dear departed, and what should be a genuinely cathartic moment becomes so much practical business.
Besides the undeniable pleasure of watching pros like Stapleton and Ruta work, however, there are excellent reasons to see this Matchmaker, foremost among them the performances of Dan Hiatt and Michelle Morain. As Cornelius, Hiatt is a monument to contained frustration. When Horace “promotes” him from chief clerk to chief clerk with no additional benefit that he can discern, he becomes a kind of comedic time bomb. He announces his intention to have at least one day of adventure, part of which will be to find romance. Undaunted by Barnaby's observation that he doesn't know any girls, Cornelius draws himself up and says, “I'm 35 years old. I've got to begin sometime.” Hiatt's Cornelius is totally sincere, fully committed, and refreshingly free of self-consciousness.
As Irene, Morain is Hiatt's perfect complement. There's an openness to Morain, a bright cheerfulness that lets her Irene face the world squarely and without illusion, even as she watches her big chance disappear. Morain's exuberant sexuality also gives Hiatt's Cornelius more than enough fuel for his romantic fire.
And then there's Gordana Rashovich as Ermengarde's dotty aunt, Flora. In a role that could so easily be a mere afterthought — she doesn't appear until the very end, when everyone arrives at her house to sort things out and pair up — Rashovich creates a complete comic persona, a woman whose mix-ups are not her fault, but who struggles to make sense from wildly haphazard events.
It's enough to make you stop hearing everything as a song cue for Hello, Dolly! Then the denouement reminds us that along with cutting a lot of the show's fat, Stewart and Herman also eliminated Matchmaker's precious ending, wherein the suddenly much-too-adorable Barnaby is prompted to offer a moral about the virtues of risking adventures. It's as though Wilder couldn't leave well enough alone and trust us to get his point.
He should have left it with Dolly.
The Matchmaker runs through June 7 at the Geary Theater in S.F.; call 749-2228.