The best thing that ever happened to "The Matchmaker" was a guy by the name of Jerry Herman. Without the jaunty score Herman added to the story of Dolly Levi's relentless pursuit of Horace Vandergelder -- thereby transforming it into "Hello, Dolly!" -- Thornton Wilder's play would be nothing more bracing than, um, "The Matchmaker."
Ford's Theatre has set as its first goal under an energetic new leader, Paul Tetreault, a defense of the honor of Herman's source material. Like an arriviste homeowner eager to impress the neighbors, the theater is doing so in high style: laying out, as it were, the good china, the imported crystal, the sterling silver tea service. Even the help's got elegance -- director Mark Lamos, set designer Michael Yeargan, star Andrea Martin. All of this is stimulating and exciting in the extreme, no? Uh, no. It's just "The Matchmaker."
This initial glimpse of the new phase in Ford's artistic life suggests a step up in taste: Yeargan's splendid scenery and Wade Laboissonniere's decorous late-19th-century costumes imbue the production with the glamour of Saks Fifth Avenue's Christmas windows. But the play itself is a lateral move for Ford's, upholding the theater's hallowed tradition of catering to the tourist trade. "The Matchmaker" is high-end hokum, reveling in a nostalgia for a pre-Roosevelt America -- not Franklin but Teddy, the America of antlers over the mantel, January dips in the lake and serious reservations about city slickers. The innocence of a bygone era is difficult to digest when it's served with heaping tablespoons of sugar.
Wilder, author of the timeless "Our Town," is a weird duck. He seems to have believed that good comedy has to be good for you, too. He wasn't content with the idea of "The Matchmaker" as a bit of fluff (unveiled in 1955, the play was inspired by the silly, shallow farces Wilder saw in his youth). So in the style of "Our Town," the dramatist compels his characters to step out of the production and speak directly to us, to confide their motives, to provide little lectures about the deeper meaning of the play. The dated device merely helps confirm the work's museum-piece status.
Not that the humor of "The Matchmaker" bowls you over, either. This is a show, after all, whose idea of trash talk is a gentle quip about Presbyterians. A milliner who detests hats, a merchant who won't part with a buck, a clerk who shouts "Pudding!" when beguiled -- the comedy is rooted in unrelenting preciousness, the sort that trusts that you find even the teeny-tiniest human foible hilarious. Only with the arrival in the final scene of the perfectly cast Lola Pashalinski as a clueless dowager do the proceedings loosen up in a way that feels vaguely contemporary, that connects with a slapdash screwball sensibility.
Otherwise, though, "The Matchmaker" is resistible, and no matter how pretty the design, it's undressed now without Herman's music. In the closing moments of a long scene in the hat shop, the proprietor, Irene Molloy (Sarah Zimmerman), tells her would-be suitor, Cornelius Hackl (David McNamara), "If you want us to go out with you, you've got to sing something." Yes, yes, you think to yourself, throw us a bone! "Put On Your Sunday Clothes"! "Before the Parade Passes By"! A show tune, any show tune! Alas, the script calls for a Civil War standard in four-part harmony, "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground."
Zimmerman and McNamara, in concert with Christopher J. Hanke's Barnaby Tucker and Stephanie Burden's Minnie Fay, make a sweet singing group. But like so many of the actors in Lamos's production, their accomplishment is strictly a product of technique. You're never convinced they believe in the people they're playing. The idea of these frivolous souls in search of "more" -- reflected in Cornelius's desire for urbanity, Barnaby's for adventure, Irene's for spontaneity -- never comes across here as something integral. And the sense of human behavior in two dimensions extends to this Dolly and her Horace, as played by Martin and Jonathan Hadary.
Martin is a glorious imp -- I've loved her since I first laid eyes on her prune-faced Edith Prickley many moons ago on "SCTV" -- but her performance at Ford's is merely a more polished version of her work in the same role at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 1998. She brings abundant charm, precision timing and not a shred of vulnerability to this quintessential busybody. She's Dolly as practical joker. If you're really left to think that Dolly is after Horace only for his money, that in lonely widowhood she craves nothing but a stable income, the heart drops out of the piece. The usually volatile and interesting Hadary is all gruffness, a stock straight man. No discernible warmth, not even a pilot light, flames on.
Lamos settles for perpetual pep, and on that score the cast obliges. Only the veteran camp actress Pashalinski, a longtime member of the late Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, gets the laughs she deserves. Splayed on a divan in a frilly gown, the tiny, plus-size performer looks like an upended powder puff. When in mid-thought her character, the dizzy Miss Van Huysen, breaks into an aria, you're catapulted into the nutso universe of the exotically inspired. So good. And too bad: Pashalinski offers the evening's first tantalizing morsel, and it's time to go home.
The Matchmaker, by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Mark Lamos. Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Tony Angelini; music director, Lynne Shankel. With Matthew Floyd Miller, Timmy Ray James, Anne Bowles, Michael Goodwin, Ross Bickell. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Oct. 24 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fordstheatre.org.