- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

VH1 has an irresistible series, “I Love the 80s,” allowing viewers to wax nostalgic over Tears for Fears, “Dynasty,” and power suits — or, if they are younger, hoot and holler over the flinch-worthy fashions and fads.

The production of “The Matchmaker” at Ford’s Theatre also whisks you back to the ‘80s — the 1880s. Those wistful for bustle skirts, “A Bicycle Built for Two” and rules of propriety as restrictive as a steel corset will find much to cozy up to in this staging, directed with an old-timey eye by Mark Lamos.

Embracers of modernism might find Thornton Wilder’s play redolent of mothballs. It’s sweet and well-intentioned, but full of drab spots that make the show gently narcotic. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has a penchant for having the characters step out of the action to deliver speeches to the audience that may be intermittently charming but also stop the play cold. The first time someone basks in the warm glow of the footlights to deliver a folksy chin-wag, you think, “Well, isn’t that lovely?” But by the fifth or sixth time, you start to groan.

Written in 1954 and the basis for the hit musical and movie “Hello, Dolly!” the play centers on the widow Dolly Levi (Andrea Martin), an amiable busybody who is the 19th-century version of Match.com, as well as someone who gives music lessons, removes varicose veins and engages in other entrepreneurial enterprises.

Fact is, Dolly is tired of schlepping. She wants to settle down and spend money — preferably, somebody else’s. She sets her bonnet for Horace Vandergelder (Jonathan Hadary), a miserly dry-goods scion from Yonkers who is in the market for a wife — actually, he wants a housekeeper with a marriage license. Dolly has him set up with the lively milliner Irene Molloy (Sarah Zimmerman) before deciding she wants Horace for herself.

“The Matchmaker” is a drawing-room farce, so of course there are subplots involving marriage. Horace has forbidden his weepy niece Ermengrade (Anne Bowles) to marry penniless artist Ambrose Kemper (Matthew Floyd Miller). Horace’s put-upon head clerk, Cornelius Hackl (David McNamara), goes off on a rash adventure in New York with fellow worker Barnaby Tucker (Christopher J. Hanke). The two wind up smitten with Irene and her guileless assistant, Minnie (Stephanie Burden). A scene of decorous delight shows the foursome’s romantic fate sealed over an a cappella chorus of “Tenting on the Old Campground.”

All is put right after a wild roundelay of a dinner at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant and an 11th-hour intervention by Miss Flora Van Huysen (Lola Pashalinski), a relative of Horace’s with a hilariously romantic bent.

“The Matchmaker” begins with an inordinate amount of starchy exposition, an elaborate setup and establishment of character that seems superfluous to modern sensibilities. Once the play gets going, however, there are some winning parts. Mr. McNamara and Mr. Hanke display the agile physical comedy necessary to pull off the ridiculous logic of a farce, especially in the scene where they must hide from Horace in Mrs. Molloy’s hat shop. The pair also convey a sense of longing and frustration that is innocent instead of embittered. The same goes for Miss Zimmerman’s vivacious turn as Mrs. Molloy, a woman who lets herself go for one night but never forgets who she is.

Miss Martin, a gifted comedian, seems to tap into a reservoir of deep-seated joy for the role of Dolly Levi. Her Dolly is bossy and outsized, but Miss Martin never lets you forget that Dolly operates from a vast, abiding curiosity and love of life. She also cuts some of the corn from the dialogue with droll line readings.

As Horace, Mr. Hadary may have the bluster down pat, but he appears more uncertain in expressing the character’s vulnerabilities. Late in the play, when the pace turns glacial, there is an unexpected jolt of hilarity in the guise of Miss Pashalinski, who plays her frivolous part as if she just wandered in from a Charles Ludlam play. Miss Pashalinski puts a terrifically affected, bizarre spin on her lines, punctuating each histrionic outburst with a trill of opera.

What a treat “The Matchmaker” would have been if there were more creative, unexpected moments like these, instead of something sturdily nostalgic but hardly transcendent.

**

WHAT: “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 24.

TICKETS: $25 to $48

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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