Taproot Theatre, 204. N 85th St., 781-9707, taproottheatre.org. $15–$40. Runs Wed.–Sat. Ends Oct. 26.
Thornton Wilder’s classic farce is a tortured piece of art. A 1954 variation on an oft-retooled tale built around mistaken identities and general buffoonery, The Matchmaker has found timelessness through the playwright’s valiant attempt to reach for something more elevated than base ridicule. When a production achieves its intended balance, the play—later adapted as the Broadway musical and movie Hello, Dolly!—manages to knit themes of love, mortality, class, and the dread of loneliness into delightful and thought-provoking theater. When it doesn’t—well, you at least hope the buffoonery is good.
The great aims of the play, set in the 1880s, are embodied by widowed marriage broker Dolly Levi Gallagher (played boldly and joyfully by Pam Nolte). With a thick Irish brogue and twinkling eye, she encourages the ridiculous adventures of the tale’s naive working-class adventurers to achieve her ultimate goal: marrying her client, the tight-fisted Yonkers half-millionaire widower Horace Vandergelder (Robert Gallaher). She’s after his money, a base desire good for easy comedy, but Wilder has written her a higher purpose. “I’ve always felt money—pardon my expression—is like manure,” Dolly says during her grand soliloquy. “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about, encouraging young things to grow.”
Dolly’s deeply sad but life-affirming speech is impassioned and moving, and yet it seems to come out of nowhere. Wilder peppers his hit play with expertly crafted dialogue that makes us empathize with his characters’ crushing loneliness or economic plight, but the cast generally fails to deliver on such moments; Wilder’s subtle strokes are skipped over as setups for broad laughs.
Thankfully, those laughs land consistently. Directed by Scott Nolte, this production is buoyed by the manic energy generated by its two slapstick teams: Robert Hinds and Brad Walker as Vandergelder’s bachelor employees, and Natalie Anne Moe and Asha Stichter as man-hunting hatmakers. Hinds is impossibly likable as the rube Cornelius, at his best when he’s turning a particular goonish phrase. As his counterpart Mrs. Malloy, Moe is a riot, playing her young-widow role with a bug-shit abandon that hints at a deeper inner darkness. But in a play so obvious, hints are never enough.