A prosperous—and obstreperous—dry goods merchant in Belle Epoque suburban Yonkers forbids his daughter to marry a young artist, all the while planning a marriage himself, bride-to-be as yet unknown. Having engaged a matchmaker of great certitude and byzantine machinations, the shopkeeper prepares to descend on Manhattan with his counselor to visit his apparently intended, a millineress.
Meanwhile, his daughter and artist beau elope, and the mild-mannered young men who slave for the merchant, given the run of the shop in his absence, decide to close up for the day and go wild on a cheap fling in the big city. With wry inevitability, in comedy born of romance (if not exactly the romances in a few young heads), all their paths converge in the trackless metropolis, and out of silly mayhem, a charming happy ending befalls everyone.
Thus, The Matchmaker, Thornton Wilder’s hit from 1955, with later collateral hits from Hello Dolly, was originally a flop when it first ran in New York in 1938, a contemporary of his magnum opus, Our Town.
Wilder, a former Berkeleyan (he went to high school here), was already a successful novelist when he essayed the theater. Both Our Town and what was then titled The Merchant of Yonkers were nostalgic Americana in great part. Our Town is about generations of backwater hamlets, a kind of inward panorama, and The Merchant/Matchmaker is a farce of innocence that pretends it is knowing, set in the big city, a big city of horsecars and Victorian ladies cinched tight in corsets, riffling their skirts as they stroll.
Based on an old Viennese farce of Nestroy’s, The Merchant of Yonkers may have nose-dived because the typical Broadway burlesque of the ’20s, the parody melodrama, had been replaced by more exotic, if no less parodic fare, like Dracula. Perhaps the sophistications and breezy screwball-ity of Viennese farce didn’t match up to the darkening, prewar mood. Or perhaps it reminded audiences of the “semiclassical” operettas of their parents.
Success only came after another world war brought even more of a sense of distance from the material—and Wilder tinkered with The Merchant, fleshing out the now-title character of Dolly Levi, the matchmaker, as well as lifting a running gag from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In any case, a charming romp in what must have looked like more carefree times suddenly seemed appealing.
Director Matthew Travisano has added some nice touches to the Actors Ensemble production at Live Oak Theater, decorating this layer cake mit schlag, Viennese waltz music. When the millineress (Mary Kidwell as Irene Molloy) is introduced in her shop, her youthful assistant, Minnie Fay (Heather Morrison) whirls in a waltz before the two are embroiled in an adventure with the two errant clerks (Justin Wheeler and Ariel Herzog), who pose as big spenders.
Familiar faces Maureen Coyne as Dolly and Louis Schilling as the ever-complaining but somehow compliant merchant, Horace Vandergelder, bounce off each other and everybody else, including an offbeat Pennell Chapin as Flora Van Huysen, the merchant’s trustworthy (though not to him) relation, his daughter Ermengard and beau (Meira Perelstein and director Matt Travisano in artist drag), his cross-eyed new sideman, Malachi Stack (Kevin Watkins) and the various servants, waiters, cabbies and barbers, some played by the likes of Martha Luehrmann and Jose Garcia, also familiar Actors Ensemble faces.
“Even if I dig ditches for the rest of my life, I will be a ditch digger who had a wonderful day.” The dialogue has great whimsical charm: “I like it in here; it’s a woman’s world, and very different ... can I take my shoes off?” and wryness: “Take my word for it, Minnie, the best of married life is a fight. The rest is just so-so.”
And even a kind of common coin wisdom: “if a man has no vices, he is in great danger of making vices of his virtues. Nurse one vice in your bosom, give it the attention it deserves, and let your virtues spring up modestly around it,” and “Everybody always talks about breaking into houses, but more want to break out of houses.”
After all the innocent fun—leisurely breakneck pursuits, genial hoodwinking and silly disguises carried over into ridiculous (but effective) transvestism—a character can truly exclaim, “Oh dear, Nobody’s anybody anymore!”
But absurdity leads to a realization of happiness, and the tight-fisted merchant himself comes to the realization that “Money, money, money ... Like the sun we walk under, it can kill and it can cure.”
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 16 at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave. $10-$12. 649-5999, www.oeofberkeley.org.