People's Light stages an uproarious version of Thornton Wilder's 'The Matchmaker'

Tabitha Allen (from left), Christopher R. Brown, Peter DeLaurier, Brandon Meeks and Teri Lamm, in the "The Matchmaker," at the People’s Light Credit: MARK GARVIN

She may come off like a sweet, if slightly vain, busybody, but Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi happens to be one of the most ingenious creations of the American theater.

Dolly, the character who gives Thornton Wilder’s madly busy and crazily crowded farce The Matchmaker its title, anchors the wild flying buttresses that make up the play’s inner architecture.

Set in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1885, The Matchmaker is a deceptively genteel and misleadingly nostalgic Kierkegaardian satire about the different ways love and money bind us to one another. Ostensibly a love story, money is mentioned in virtually every scene. Characters are hoarding it, counting it, spending it, losing it, stealing it, and giving it away.

A formidable, complicated soul, Dolly was portrayed by no less a legend than Ruth Gordon in The Matchmaker's 1955 Broadway premiere (and by Carol Chaning in the comedy’s more famous 1964 musical reincarnation, Hello, Dolly!)

Dolly is, in a word, a handful. So it’s gratifying to see the character so nicely handled by actor-playwright Kathryn Petersen (Ghosts, Dividing the Estate) in People’s Light’s generally genial and periodically uproarious, if flawed, new production of The Matchmaker, which runs through March 12 at the company’s Leonard C. Haas Stage in Malvern. (It comes just weeks before a much-ballyhooed revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce is set to open on Broadway.)

Petersen is delightfully devious and devilishly charming as Dolly, a widow of limited means retained by the foolishly wealthy 60-year-old widower Horace Vandergelder. He wants a young wife who he hopes is as fresh and shiny as a newly minted dollar coin. But Dolly, whose manipulations and machinations drive forward several intersecting love stories, has other plans for Horace.

Directed by People’s Light artistic director and CEO Abigail Adams, The Matchmaker also stars company member Graham Smith (A Single Shard, The Cherry Orchard) as Dolly’s target, er, I mean friend, Horace, a Yonkers store owner who has spent much of his life earning and hoarding cash (Vandergelder is from the German Geld, or gold).

Now that he’s put away a half a million dollars, Horace feels he’s rich enough to risk making a fool of himself with women. And Dolly, it seems, has found him a perfect candidate, Manhattan milliner Irene Molloy (company member Teri Lamm, The Harassment of Iris Malloy, Sense and Sensibility).

If Horace is the paradigm of American capitalism, Dolly is a strangely selfish sort of socialist revolutionary.

“Money — pardon my expression — money is like manure,” she tells the audience. “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

Using Horace and Dolly’s journey into New York as the major story thread, The Matchmaker then throws in half a dozen new characters and a couple of subplots. There are the forbidden love story between Horace’s niece Ermengarde (Mina Kawahara) and local painter Ambrose Kemper (James Ijames) and a rebellion fomented by Horace employees Cornelius Hackl (Brandon Meeks) and Barnaby Tucker (Christopher R. Brown), who skip work to go to New York in search of adventure.

Wilder, who famously used a narrator to address the audience in Our Town, here violates the fourth wall with wonderful alacrity and regularity. Virtually every character in The Matchmaker delivers these self-referential asides that reveal their motivations, their goals, their philosophy of life.

Considering the number of characters, that makes for a potentially cacophonous situation. In addition to Dolly, Horace, and Irene, we also hear from Cornelius, a Horace family friend named Flora Van Huysen (Melanye Finister), and most effectively from Horace’s newly hired clerk, the aging, booze-loving wiseacre Malachi, hilariously played by People’s Light associate artistic director Pete Pryor (The Harassment of Iris Malloy, Richard III).

Not handled well, the asides become intrusive. And that is what happens in the latter half of the production. Instead of treating them as little confidences – as subtle breaks in the play’s rhythm and pace – Adams handles  them as full-on soliloquies and emphasizes their disruptive effect on the overall flow. This approach might be closer to Wilder’s intended effect, but it wreaks havoc on the timing that is so essential in comedy.

Tone isn’t the only problem. At 135 minutes, this staging of The Matchmaker is too long and unwieldy. Scenes have too much fat and tend to drag. I wish Adams had taken a scalpel to Wilder’s text and carved out a leaner, faster take.

Happily, the cast’s energetic – at times veritably frenetic – handling of the material saves The Matchmaker from sinking into the doldrums. Despite its problems, this is a wildly enjoyable ride.

The Matchmaker

Through March 12, People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern.
Tickets: $33-$87.
Information:  610-644-3500, peopleslight.org.