“The Matchmaker” is rarely performed professionally. Girl Friday Productions, which opened the Thornton Wilder play on Friday at Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul, claims that this is the first local professional staging in more than 30 years.
More likely, we see this story in the guise of “Hello, Dolly!” a wonderful musical that nonetheless strips the irony and wry observation from Wilder’s script. The playwright in “Matchmaker” is at once more substantial and more frivolous — lively and fit with something to say about a world “that is full of such wonderful things.”
Girl Friday’s success starts with director Craig Johnson and set designer Rick Polenek, who have framed the production as a piece of 1890s gaeity. Before each act, a scrim is rolled up and the actors walk out on the Andy Boss Thrust stage.
Polenek’s set is a series of doors and exits cut into an attractive wall that reminds you of a restaurant’s back hallway. It’s efficient, malleable and full of the entrances necessary for a farce. Kathy Kohl, who has never costumed a bad show, keeps her streak alive, and there comes a moment when the mottled and fraught lighting in the Harmonia Gardens scene has us taking note of designer Dietrich Poppen.
Wilder loved to let you know that you were watching a play, and Johnson nicely reflects that conceit. Characters break the wall and address us directly — including young Barnaby Tucker (Vincent Hannam), who tells us that this play is about mixing adventure into our routine. It is about love and chicanery, about spreading your money around and letting life go on a reckless spree.
Karen Wiese-Thompson is perfectly measured as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker who works her way into the heart of wealthy Horace Vandergelder. Wiese-Thompson plays such a good con, and her wit is so light and dry. Yet, this Dolly is deliciously hydrated, too, with a smart and scheming mind and an inexhaustible — yet controlled — energy.
Alan Sorenson portrays the Yonkers merchant who thinks he’s heading to New York, where he will win the hand of Irene Molloy (with Dolly’s alleged “help”). Sorenson had some fumbles Friday night, but his Horace is full of bluster, tightly wound, never overdone.
Lindsay Marcy finds a great, assertive strength for Irene, a woman who fiercely protects her interests. She looks great in a big bustle dress, with broad shoulders and a generous, eager smile.
Dan Hopman quite well finds the optimistic adventure of Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder’s frustrated clerk who is ready for a perilous lark. David Beukema and Sam Landman show how important side characters are in Wilder’s work. Landman gets to deliver the confession of a scoundrel, a fine moment as Malachi Stack explaining why he will return a lost wallet rather than keep the treasure.
The only quirky acting choice is in Christian Bardin’s fluttery and mannered Minnie Fay. Bardin is an immensely inventive and curious actor whose work I have always liked. Here, her good instincts produce a Minnie so stylized that she seems shipped in from another play.
Kirby Bennett has a wry and daffy sensibility as a hostess in whose apartment the fateful fourth act occurs.
Even when Wilder gets a little soggy in his dialogue, Johnson’s deep understanding of the playwright’s world and these performances make this play worth seeing.