By Joseph Hurley
THE MATCHMAKER, by John B. Keane. Adapted by Phyllis Ryan. Directed by Michael Scott. Starring Anna Manahan and Des Keogh. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through March 31.
There’s an adage in the theater that says if you show the audience a gun in the first act, somebody had better have used it by the end of the play.
The people behind “The Matchmaker,” Phyllis Ryan’s arrangement of one of Kerry playwright John B. Keane’s six or so epistolary novellas, currently on view at the Irish Repertory Theatre, appear to have ignored that simple but valid wisdom.
Upon entering the auditorium, audiences are confronted by a trio of heavily laden coat racks, seemingly about to collapse under their burden of jackets, capes, hats and so forth.
Unfortunately, neither of the show’s stars, Anna Manahan and Des Keogh, ever makes significant use of this cornucopia or fabrics and leathers, except for the latter, who briefly snatches an item or two of headgear from the underutilized abundance.
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The sight of those brimming coat racks has risked leading the audience into expecting a multiplicity of quickly sketched characters, each achieved in the blink of an eye or with the instantaneous manipulation of a shawl, a cloak or a fedora. The potential, unfortunately, is never realized.
Marie Jones’s “Stones in His Pockets” comes to mind, with its two brilliant actors, Conleth Hill and Sean Campion, now performing a revival of the play at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre, achieving a panoply of vivid characters, also without resorting to changes of costume.
Garments or no garments, nothing of the sort ever happens in “The Matchmaker.” Alas, the venture’s tedious flatness is regrettable in the extreme, since both Manahan and Keogh rank among the most experienced and admired of contemporary Irish performers.
Despite the fact that actress Manahan, who won a supporting 1998 Tony Award for her work in the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” recently told an interviewer that she and Keogh play some 32 characters in “The Matchmakers,” experiencing the actual production, directed by Michael Scott, wouldn’t seem to bear out that claim.
The impression the show, originally produced by Ireland’s celebrated Machine Theatre Company, gives is that Keogh, as a part-time farmer and part-time marriage broker in “Spider’s Well, Ballybarra,” one “Dicky Mick Dicky O’Connor,” plus some three or four of his clients, and Manahan, as a few of his husband-hunting correspondents, are somewhat trapped by the material’s limitations.
The letter-exchange format has its drawbacks, to be sure, but it can be made to work. A couple of seasons ago, on the same stage, Marian Seldes and Donal Donnelly made something wonderfully enjoyable out of “Dear Liar,” Jerome Kilty’s stage adaptation of the letters that passed back and forth between George Bernard Shaw and the actress known as Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
Manahan and Keogh don’t appear to have been quite so fortunate, and the problem would seem to have begun with the fact that the work of J.B. Keane, a prolific writer who also happens to own and operate a pub in Listowel, Co. Kerry, doesn’t cross the Atlantic. The overall situation hasn’t been much helped by the awkward form found by adapter Ryan, a seasoned Dublin theater professional of vast experience.
Ryan, particularly in the show’s lengthy first act, has Manahan, wearing what appears to be a baggy red housedress, seated or standing, impersonating one after another of the mate-seeking correspondents.
The lanky, beanpole-like Keogh, meanwhile, occupies the left-hand side of the stage, mainly portraying the matchmaker, but stepping forward from time to time to render an instantaneous sketch from Keane’s galaxy of letter-writers, at one point an arrogant Englishman who really prefers boys to the young girls he’s requesting, at another a modest jockey, and so forth.
The actor, a veteran of Irish revue and music hall, frequently partnering the excellent Rosaleen Linehan, is good at this sort of thing, suggesting a semblance of a human being with a few words and a facial expression or two.
Keogh and Manahan preformed “The Matchmaker” throughout 2001, playing around Ireland and at the Edinburgh Festival and elsewhere, always, we’re told, with conspicuous success.
Sad to say, the long run has begun to take its toll on both performers.
Keogh, normally a disciplined and gifted actor, did an excellent turn as Fluther, the carpenter, in an Irish Rep production of Dean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” a few seasons ago. This time, however, probably as a result of both the lengthy “Matchmaker” run and of his vaudeville habituation, he has allowed a certain smugness to creep into his work, causing him to send little signals to the audience pointing out the accuracy of his split-second portraits of Keane’s characters.
Actress Manahan, as it happens, is asked to conjure up fewer characters than her partner, spending about half the evening as one Fionnuala Crust, who, before the final curtain, has buried two of the husbands Dicky has found for her, and is ready for a third marital candidate.
When she portrays others among Keane’s women, the modest, undemanding Lena Magee, say, or Marge, Dicky’s Americanized sister, a longtime Philadelphia resident, the actress generally starts out well, with softened tones on the one hand, and a credible “Yank” accent on the other, and then, midway, seems to slide into the harsh, rough vocalisms that served her so well as the brutal, manipulative harridan of a mother in “Beauty Queen.”
The unfortunate result is that as “The Matchmaker” plods along, Manahan’s characterizations tend to bleed into each other, leaving the impression, rightly or wrongly, that she isn’t displaying all that much in the way of versatility.
“The Matchmaker” would probably be more effective dispensing with the intermission and coming in at 90 minutes or so, but, as things stand, Ryan’s arrangement does make an intriguing turn in its second half.
Following the break, the actors seem to treat some of the letters as though they were more conventionally narrative, storytelling materials. The results are largely remedial, particularly as applies to actress Manahan, since the switch in approach, whether the work of Ryan or of director Scott, allows her to use the softer, subtler aspects of her abilities, eschewing the coarseness and stridency that had marked so much of her impact before the intermission.
Keane has been referred to dismissively as a “bog playwright,” not really suitable for export. There’s some truth in the charge, but it doesn’t cancel out the fact that, despite its limitations, “The Matchmaker” provides a goodly measure of uncomplicated fun, delivered by two of Ireland’s best actors.