"The Matchmaker" Review - A Goodman Theatre Production of Thornton Wilder's Play about the Absurdity of Life

The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, is currently presenting “The Matchmaker”, by Thornton Wilder, through April 10, 2016, in a new version of the famous play by Thornton Wilder, graced by the superb stagecraft for which The Goodman is justly famous, and stars Kristine Nielsen and Allen Gilmore. There is an impressively diverse and inclusive cast, featuring Anita Hollinger, an actress who lost a leg to cancer, and who portrays three characters: an aged housekeeper in a wheelchair, an ensemble member, and a cook on crutches.  Seven members of the cast play a variety of unusual musical instruments live on stage- including a musical saw! 

Kristine Nielsen as Dolly Gallagher Levi

Director Henry Wishcamper consulted with Tappan Wilder, literary executor and nephew of the playwright about the production. The comic masterpiece, penned in 1955, is rarely staged; it’s the basis for the musical “Hello, Dolly!” Although the action is set in Yonkers, New York and New York City, Chicago was apparently beloved by Thornton Wilder “and where the idea for his play germinated”.

Elizabeth Ledo as Irene Molloy and Postell Pringle as Cornelius Hackl

Set in the 1880’s, the play opens at the home of Horace Vandergelder, (HV) a wealthy, penny-pinching widower. “Geld” is money in German- it’s “gelt” in Yiddish. In quick succession, we are introduced to most of the main characters, many of whom are almost archetypical in nature: the miser, the matchmaker herself, the fortune-teller, the starving artist. HV rejects the suit of this artist, Ambrose Kemper-he’s too poor- for the hand of his loud-sobbing niece, Ermengarde; he packs her off to the home of a friend in NYC. He is planning to leave himself for that venue with his marriage broker, Dolly Levi, to propose to the milliner, Irene Molloy.  Dolly convinces him to meet another woman first- she’s completely fictitious- it’s Dolly herself who hopes to snag HV.  Before the action shifts to the Big Apple, we meet HV’s two clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, at whom he bellows orders and threats. Upon his departure, they cause an explosion to spray the place with tomatoes, must needs close up shop, and head to NYC themselves for adventure and romance.

Behzad Dabu as Barnaby Tucker

After this, the remainder of the action, in NYC, is reminiscent of French farce-except there are no bedrooms in this comedy. The clerks end up at Irene Molloy’s before HV and Dolly do- they are forced to hide in the wardrobe and under a table. The clerks, Molloy and her assistant repair to the same restaurant as do Dolly and HV- the first group must hide behind a screen. Molloy and clerks along with HV and Dolly wind up with Ambrose and Ermengarde at the home of a friend of HV’s, Flora Van Huesen, who misidentifies them repeatedly.  After a lot of hiding, startled encounters, and a deal of revelation, kisses are exchanged, adventures had, clerks promoted, marriages proposed. All ends well.

Ronobir Lahiri as Ambrose Kemper and Kristine Nielsen as Dolly Gallagher Levi

This is a clever play with a highly talented cast, whose facial expressions alone are often priceless. Sprinkled throughout are witty bon mots and advice-filled addresses directed at each other and  the audience. There are asides about the significance of vice, (one is good for you but “combination” sinners give the notion of vice a bad name), the nature of money, (like manure, it should be spread around), Dolly’s wish to get married to rejoin the human race. These canny shared observations add import and depth and bring forth gentle knowing laughter from an audience already charmed with the well-put and decidedly funny dialogue of the great Thornton Wilder.

Anita Hollinger as Gertrude, Allen Gilmore as Horace Vandergelder and Ron E. Rains as Joe Scanlon

This is a production that satisfies. At almost 3 hours long, it provides skilled players, great period costumes and wonderful stage sets. This reviewer would be remiss not to mention the brilliantly executed zany physical hi-jinks, like the capering of younger clerk Barnaby, played by Behzad Dabu,who seems almost boneless, sliding under and from under the table in the millinery. The scene where Dolly raps all over and inside the wardrobe wherein Hackl, played with enormous aplomb by Postell Pringle, is hiding is genuinely hilarious. All in all, this is a very worthwhile, very well done performance-it is highly recommended; go see it!

Behzad Dabu as Barnaby Tucker, Postal Pringle as Cornelius Hackl and Allen Gilmore as Horace Vandergelder


Find information about this and other great shows at  Goodman Theater


All photos courtesy of Liz Lauren

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