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[whitespace] Wilma Bonet, Peter Van Norden
Tea for Two: Dolly (Wilma Bonet) considers the proposal of Vandergelder (Peter Van Norden).

Silicon Dolly

SJ Rep's 'The Matchmaker' brings famous character to Silicon Valley

By Heather Zimmerman

LOVE MAKES the world go round, but a little money helps, too--so marriage broker Dolly Levi proclaims. Dolly is a character probably better known as the star of the musical Hello, Dolly! than in the play in which she first dispensed her pragmatic marital advice: Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker.

Wilder's witty farce has a definite mercenary edge that makes it an interesting choice for the holidays, that season of both gimme and goodwill. And for the San José Repertory Theatre's production, director Timothy Near has changed the setting of the play from New York to the Bay Area but kept its turn-of-the-century time period, with results that are both charming and timely.

Spurred on by advancing age, wealthy merchant Horace Vandergelder (Peter Van Norden) has decided to remarry. He hires well-known matchmaker Dolly Levi (Wilma Bonet) to find him a suitable wife, but Dolly wants to snag the well-heeled widower for herself. When Vandergelder leaves his store in San Jose for a trip to San Francisco on a "date" arranged by Dolly, his two overworked clerks, Cornelius (Michael Butler) and Barnaby (Jesus Reyes), plan a secret trip to San Francisco themselves. Naturally, employer and employees unexpectedly cross paths.

Near uses a light but adept touch with the broad comedy of these encounters, most spectacularly at a posh restaurant, where the clerks cower behind furniture and dress up in drag, all to avoid Mr. Vandergelder.

In fact, the production's best laughs may come from some additional gender-bending: Vandergelder's Bohemian-chic cousin Flora Van Huysen, a spinster who waxes poetic about nothing being as it seems, appears, for all her graceful silk kimonos and ladylike dependence on smelling salts, to be a cross-dresser, masterfully played by James Carpenter.

And generally, the cast turns in some wonderful performances. Van Norden brings moneyed sternness to Vandergelder but also makes him insecure enough that Dolly's transparent "feminine wiles" work. As Irene Molloy, a young widow who runs a hat shop (and hates it), Johanna McKay has a likable edginess.

Bonet at times seems a little self-conscious as Dolly, as if she's trying to wring the character for every laugh, but she hits her stride nicely in the second act. A subplot involving Vandergelder's wishy-washy niece Ermengarde (Ann Marie Shipstad) eloping with her artist boyfriend (Triney Sandoval) is the weakest of the play's comic entanglements.

Near has added vaudevillian musical interludes between scenes that feature wonderful turn-of-the-century tunes that heighten the whimsical, old-timey feel of the production, but such nostalgia never seems a wistful wish for simpler times--Wilder plainly demonstrates that people fretted just as much 100 years ago about their finances, social standing and love lives (or lack thereof) as they do now.

And for the many familiar themes you can extract from The Matchmaker--"money talks," "love conquers all" and, at times, "a fool and his money are soon parted"--Wilder's playful moral is the most basic: all people can be fools at some time or another, so we might as well enjoy ourselves.

The Matchmaker plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm, plus Monday (Dec. 20) at 8pm and Wednesday (Dec 22) at noon through Jan. 2 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $17-$35. (408.367.7255)

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From the December 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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