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The Matchmaker review

"The Matchmaker" by Thornton Wilder is at the Goodman Theatre through April 10. 

We rarely get a date night and don't always choose to see a show when we do, so theater reviews are not my usual blog thing--despite my background. But it was The Mama's birthday last week and we managed to get a babysitter. So we thought about a few plays for what we'd see...since both of us have theater experience, we joke that this is how we'll spend our later days (along with travel). The tickets were discounted via Hot Tix and turned out to be quite good. In the mezzanine was great. Really, there's not a bad seat at The Goodman though. It was my first time visiting and it's a very intimate venue. Good acoustics and sight lines.

For those unfamiliar with the history of the play, it was Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker which was eventually turned into the musical Hello, Dolly! The musical had his blessing though he wasn't involved in the production. The Matchmaker itself had a long Broadway run and Wilder's work continues to get updates to present day via his nephew who is literary executor of his estate. It is, roughly, a "mix up" comedy set in dawn-of-the-20th-century New York where characters aspire to marriage and/or adventure and end up with a little bit of both. There's a grumpy, rich businessman. A scheming matchmaker. A young couple in love and trying to run away. And a couple of store clerks who get in over their heads while trying to take a rare day off of work.

The play itself is amazingly relevant though you'll cringe at some of the outdated dialogue, viewpoints, and social conventions. Though parts of that is characters who are deliberately cringe-worthy to make a point. Wilder writes about love and relationships in a way that modern audiences will find quite accessible. In some ways it will remind you of much later romantic comedies at the movies. Then again, Shakespeare was doing mistaken identity and not realizing love when it bites hundreds of years earlier.

The Goodman production is adequately costumed and has decent sets. Nothing lavish. But the fact that you don't think long and hard about it shows it was done well. The big thing to talk about here is the casting. An older African-American man in the lead role. The slapstick "younger" store clerk going to an actor who is a bit older and who perhaps overplays the comedy in places. Not sure whether that's a director's choice or his own. The comedy is just screwball enough in places that it's highly amusing when it works...but very noticeable when it doesn't work. Nothing falls absolutely flat. But it can feel contrived. What fun it would be to pick that apart in a class...is it Wilder, the director, the skills of the actors? I'd love to hear other views.

One thing to note is that the theater was exceptionally cold. Perhaps to keep the audience comfortable/awake. Too cold is better than too hot. Especially for actors in period costumes. For a contemporary person seeking entertainment, the show is just "talk-y" enough to bog down a little bit. It's long by a few minutes (2 hrs, 40 min  with one intermission). One complaint from an audience member near us was that it was "too much exposition." Yes, well, the rest of the play requires that you know information that the characters do not. It sets up everything else. But I will agree that by the time we meet a brand new, intentionally strange character in Act IV we're all ready to just wrap it up and go home, to dinner, etc..

Overall, The Matchmaker gets a "highly recommended" from me. It's an enjoyable evening of very, very good theatre. You'll laugh. You'll sit close enough to see the expressions on actor faces. And you'll even get to see some pretty good playing of the hand saw. Plus, Thornton Wilder is enough of a giant in American stage writing that you'll want to see his work come to life just to understand what the fuss is. It may not be as famous as Our Town but this work holds up well into the 21st century.

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