Simply put, The Matchmaker is clever, funny, and warm-hearted. The production that just opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre defines, in the easiest of terms, what theatre should be.
John B. Keane's script is unassuming and honest, a tribute to the people of rural Ireland, and Michael Scott's direction is clean and brings out the best of Keane's colorful turns of phrase and unique Irish vocabulary. (A glossary has been thoughtfully provided in the Showbill, but you'll most likely not need it.) Michael McCaffery's set design is effective, consisting of little more than two tables, walls, and coat racks, and Synan O'Mahoney's costumes provide welcome splashes of color.
The one thing they all have in common is they know when to get out of the way, for when Anna Manahan and Des Keogh are onstage, nothing can stop them.
Each actor possesses a highly adaptable voice and strength of presence, necessary for creating the twenty characters or so that will populate the evening. For most of the show's running time, however, the two performers don't converse directly with each other. They stand, or sit, facing out at the audience, reciting the letters their characters are writing. All the characters are so clearly defined with voice and body, you'll never be confused for a moment who is who.
Rather, you'll find it very difficult indeed to not sit back and enjoy becoming highly involved with the story of Dicky Mick Dicky O'Connor (Deogh), the matchmaker of title, who serves to bring together the lonely people of the Irish countryside. As he explains at one point, he's known the land and the people for most of his life, and wants to help them find love. This he does through the mail, at bargain prices (20 pounds generally, 10 for widows), and with a pretty decent success rate.
And we get to hear about nearly every detail of these matches, good and bad, but mostly all humorous. Whether assisting an older, richer gentlemen with a taste for women (at least) many years his junior, or a young man with a troubled back and leg, or a woman who seems to have the worst luck with husbands, Dicky will do nearly everything in his power to see that everyone finds the right person for them.
Keogh shines as the show's centerpiece, but Manahan's contribution is a vital one, breathing lusty energy into each of her characters, whether Dicky's sister, or any of the lonely women just looking for someone to love. Keogh is more subdued, but every bit as effective, and charming from first moment to last.
But, with so much of the show being told through letters, it is at the end of the first act that the show comes even more alive. As good as Keogh and Manahan are apart - and they are very, very good - they are even better together. The warmth and chemistry between them spills off the stage in the final tale of the act, when a man finally figures out how to get his wife interested in him again, and it's a wonderful moment. They appear together slightly more often in the second act, but it never gets better than this.
Funny and occasionally poignant, and with two powerhouse performances at its center, there's plenty to love in The Matchmaker.
Irish Repertory Theatre