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Casting Locally

Baltimore/Washington Regulars Elevate An Otherwise Familiar Production

Caitlin O'Connell busses Edward Gero; Garrett Neergaard busts them.

By John Barry | Posted 9/24/2008

The Matchmaker

By Thornton Wilder

At Center Stage through Oct. 12

Maybe it's just that the stock market had dropped 500 points several hours before the opening performance of Center Stage's The Matchmaker, but Thornton Wilder's lines had a little more bite to them that night than he might have intended. "Money should be like rainwater," Dolly Levi announces in the middle of The Matchmaker, pretty much offering her Keynesian vision of the economy. Meanwhile, Horace Vandergelder, self-made millionaire and notorious tightwad, finds himself suddenly stuck with the tab without any cash on hand after losing his wallet: "I don't know where money has gone to these days. It's in hiding!"

Of course, this play--one that you may have performed in high school, complete with its witty epigrams--treads more familiar territory. To begin with, there's the famous opening line: "I tell you for the hundredth time you will never marry my niece." With his finger wagging, the dark-browed Horace (Edward Gero) throws down the glove, as he tries to discourage the young artist Ambrose Kemper (Lee Aaron Rosen) from marrying his daughter Ermengarde (Zoe Winters). Kemper responds that he will, in fact, marry her. And he gets Ermengarde to escape with him in a quasi-elopement.

It's fair to say that Wilder's sense of humor is drawn from the age of Ogden Nash. Humor is propelled by pithy witticisms and memorable observations frequently delivered in solitary spotlights. But in this production, at least, it wasn't certain what exactly Wilder, or director Irene Lewis, thought was so funny about the situation in which these characters find themselves. And what transpires is a somewhat messy, chaotic mix of farce, dry wit, and an American form of humor that reached its apex with Nash.

The central romance between Horace and Dolly is somewhat sweet and lowdown, and is almost a counterpart to some of the more farcical characters. Winters' Ermengarde is almost commedia dell'arte: Her face shifts suddenly from a masque of love-struck happiness to horror, in a way that is out of whack. Her beau, Rosen's Kemper, meanwhile, appears to be a more or less straight character. Horace's clerks are a comedic duo. At points it seems the production is trying to ratchet the humor up; at others, it offers a more subdued alternative to The Matchmaker's louder, noisier musical version, Hello Dolly. And this mix of camp and drawing-room comedy is distracting.

What makes this Matchmaker worth the trip, however, are the individual performances. In this production, Center Stage has focused on Baltimore/Washington-area actors. Gero--largely known around here for his work with Washington's Shakespeare Theatre--takes the role of Horace and gives it a darkness and loneliness that might be lost in a more boisterous production. Caitlin O'Connell--also a frequent presence at the Shakespeare Theatre--gives a riveting performance as Dolly. Her Dolly is a master puppeteer, who verges from controlling others to being controlled by her own repressed passion. She loves sticking her nose in other people's business, but she is also essentially lonely. Dolly and Horace are moving toward a marriage without love, but both Gero and O'Connell make their characters an almost perfect mismatch.

Local favorite Laurence O'Dwyer hams it up effectively as Horace's somewhat rumpled assistant Malachi. As Cornelius Hackl, a clerk in search of romantic adventure, Michael Braun gives the part an infectious if unjustified optimism that gives the play its charm. With Garret Neergaard as Barnaby, Malachi's younger partner in crime, Braun injects new life into boilerplate gag situations. Pamela Payton-Wright, meanwhile, has a hilarious turn as a befuddled grande dame whose use of smelling salts has brought her to the edge of dementia. She latches on to a young couple, living her own romantic fantasies vicariously through them.

The Matchmaker isn't given much topicality, and so it's not clear the world needs yet another production of it. But rather than focus on trying to update it, Center Stage does a good job of using local talent in a production that highlights what the Baltimore/Washington region has to offer. Center Stage is frequently criticized for relying too much on New York for its casts, and this production should silence those critics for a while.

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