KPBS AIRDATE: March 09, 2007
Two comedies set in the 1880s; two writers, separated by a half-century, paying homage to the plays of the past. One is a bona fide chestnut; the other, a modern warhorse-wannabe.
“The Matchmaker,” by Thornton Wilder, is an American classic, begun in 1938, revised in 1955, and ultimately the famous source for the megahit musical, “Hello, Dolly!”
“The Uneasy Chair,” by Evan Smith, was written in 1998, and the North Coast Repertory Theatre production is its West coast premiere. But the play is as stodgy as its Victorian forebears, intentionally outmoded, spiced up with a little existential twist at the end. Wilder’s work has an upbeat outlook and conclusion; every character gets a little adventure, and an ideal mate. In “The Uneasy Chair,” the couples are dreadful mismatches, miserable in their matrimonial alliances.
Smith’s old-fangled, middle-aged characters sport Dickensian names. Miss Pickles is the London landlady and Capt. Wickett her reluctant tenant; together they fall into a sticky, pickly wicket, which is to say, a rather hostile relationship which ends in a marriage by spite, a divorce by default and an unenviable old age. A miscommunication involves the niece of one and nephew of the other, who also unite in nuptial disharmony. It’s all rather arch and self-consciously clever. Fortunately, director Brendon Fox has an expert cast with crack comic timing. Lynne Griffin and Robert Grossman are delightful together, their facial expressions carrying more dramatic heft than the talky text. Craig Huisenga is hilarious in a bevy of cameo roles, male and female. But the entire array is mired in stiff locutions and a script that’s a lot less Wilde than Oscar.
“The Matchmaker” is definitely Wilder. Thornton Wilder, that is. His version of a 19th century European comedy is filled with farcical pratfalls, secret rendezvous, men dressed as women or hiding in closets, and everyone perfectly paired by the end. Despite its occasional epigrams and unflagging optimism, the play is often hopelessly prescriptive, including an epilogue that spells out the moral of the story. It’s impressive how much of the dialogue was transported directly into the musical, and there are times when you pine for a tuneful show-stopper. But director Sean Murray has made the most of every comic moment. Sandra Ellis-Troy and David Gallagher are perfectly paired as the meddling manipulator, Dolly Levi, and her irascible, penny-pinching prey, Horace Vandergelder. But it’s the secondary characters who run away with the show. Sean Cox and Amy Biedel are delicious as Vandergelder’s sprightly chief clerk and the lovely, widowed milliner he’s smitten with in New York.
Both productions are well acted, directed and designed. But old and new, the plays give off a faint whiff of the quaint and musty.
©2007 Patté Productions Inc.