Ford's Theatre starts season with a hearty hello to Dolly

`Matchmaker' is very well arranged

TheaterReview

October 01, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

As the happily meddling title character in The Matchmaker at Ford's Theatre, Andrea Martin is so warm and engaging, she can look straight out at the audience and declare "We're all fools," and it comes across as a compliment.

Martin's character is Dolly Levi, and if that name sounds familiar, it's because Thornton Wilder's 1954 play is the basis of the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! Wilder had titled an earlier - unsuccessful - version of the play, The Merchant of Yonkers, after the businessman Dolly connives into marrying her.

But it wasn't until the playwright changed the emphasis to Dolly that the play found its audience. And though there are many sparkling elements in director Mark Lamos' production at Ford's, what sparkles most brightly is the ebullient portrayal of Dolly by Martin (whose comedy credits include SCTV and the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

Just watch this Dolly - "a woman who arranges things" - eating dinner at a posh restaurant with her unwitting husband-to-be, merchant Horace Vandergelder. Not content merely to put ideas into his head, Martin's Dolly also cuts up his food and feeds it to him. And she does this with such good-natured briskness, Jonathan Hadary's bewildered Horace swallows his meal and her notions before he knows what's hit him.

Actually, Hadary's character is bewildered so much of the time, it's difficult to believe Horace is a successful businessman. If the actor is trying to show how much his foggy-headed character needs take-charge Dolly, he overdoes it. He's so befuddled, we long for Martin's Dolly whenever Hadary is onstage without her.

But Martin's performance is hardly the only thing Lamos' production has going for it. The Matchmaker is the first show under the tenure of Ford's newly appointed producing director, Paul R. Tetreault. The successor to the late, legendary Frankie Hewitt (who rescued the theater from mothballs four decades ago), Tetreault appears poised to take Ford's to the next level artistically.

This polished production is a good start. Stylistically, Matchmaker is a farce, complete with cross-dressing, cases of mistaken identity and people hiding behind screens, in wardrobes and under tables. But Wilder was a playwright who enjoyed toying with theatrical forms, or as he put it, "making fun of old-fashioned play writing." The result is a post-modern, old-fashioned farce.

In staging The Matchmaker, this means not only mastering the split-second timing essential to farce, but winking at the form at the same time. A good many of the characters address the audience directly, and at the end, one even tells us "the moral of the play." Lamos gets away with this because his actors imbue their characters with so much affability that, when they break the fourth wall, it's both a pleasure and an honor to be taken into their confidence.

Among the most affable are David McNamara, as Horace's overworked chief clerk, Cornelius, and Sarah Zimmerman, as the milliner with whom he falls in love. Like Dolly Levi, Zimmerman's character, Irene Molloy, also has the upper hand in her relationship, but in this case, McNamara's Cornelius is only too willing to be tricked into matrimony.

Like the asides to the audience, Michael Yeargan's set designs - which feature two-dimensional representations of everything from packing crates to drapery - reinforce Wilder's inclination to call attention to the innate theatricality of the genre.

And what is the moral of the play? Live life to the fullest, or in the words of the character who answers that question directly: "I think it's about adventure."

Ford's has embarked on a new adventure under the leadership of producing director Tetreault. This initial production blows the dust off of an American classic, and the same may be in store for the historic theater itself.

Theater

What: The Matchmaker

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at noon Thursdays and Oct. 6, and 2:30 p.m. tomorrow and Sundays; through Oct. 24

Tickets: $25-$48

Call: 202-347-4833

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