It is one thing to mangle "Hedda Gabler," as the Barter Theatre did last month, but quite another to botch Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker." Ibsen's chilly Scandinavian temperament generally eludes American actors. But Wilder, after all, is one of ours.
Nonetheless, it's bungling time all over again at George Mason University, where the Barter is in the midst of its second winter residency. Judging from the quality of last season's productions and the two Barter has given us so far this season, there doesn't seem to be any reason for the Abingdon, Va.-based company to bother coming north.
Wilder's play, like Tom Stoppard's recent "On the Razzle," draws on a 19th-century English comedy, later turned into a Viennese farce, about two humble clerks who slip out from under the paw of their stuffy boss and experience a night of romance and adventure in the big town.
But where Stoppard used the tale as a springboard for some dizzying verbal highjinks, Wilder was content to celebrate a world full of unexpected wonders. He transported the action to Yonkers and New York and added the character of Dolly Levi, that meddlesome optimist who is determined to introduce one half of the universe to the other. The result was warm and eccentric comedy, as American as "Main Street."
Barter's production is directed by Rex Partington, who also plays Horace Vandergelder, the sour old moneybags; it's a toss-up which he does worse. Under his inattentive eye, a cast of no apparent grace lumbers around flimsy canvas sets that appear to have been retrieved from a touring melodrama. Occasionally, there is a spurt of rambunctiousness that succeeds mainly in causing the sets to flap.
The poor actresses are wrapped in bolts of cloth, as if for mummification. The performance of Cleo Holladay, who is Partington's wife in real life, suggests that Dolly Levi is Minnie Pearl's city cousin. The performance of Dixie Partington, as Ermengarde, suggests her chief asset is being Partington's daughter.
The lackluster lighting doesn't suggest anything at all, but it is by Tony Partington, Partington's son.
After Arena's superlative "On the Razzle," this family affair looks sorry indeed.
At times, George Hosmer (Cornelius) and Joan Grant (Mrs. Malloy) indicate that they might acquit themselves respectably under other conditions -- a different production, for example. But mediocrity, when it is as oppressive as this, spreads like a plague. Everybody eventually comes down with it.
A solidly professional theater in Northern Virginia would be a decided asset, but the repeated bumblings and flounderings of this troupe don't advance the cause an inch. The Barter is no less than the state theater of Virginia, but if I were Virginia, I wouldn't tell anyone.
THE MATCHMAKER. By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Rex Partington. Sets, Bennet Averyt; costumes, Barbara Forbes; lighting, Tony Partington. With Rex Partington, Cleo Holladay, George Hosmer, Dixie Partington, Ross Bickell, Gerry Goodman, Joan Grant and Mary Shelley. At George Mason University through Dec. 19.