Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Match Game
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Also see Rick's review of The Chosen

The Cast
Photo by Ryan Kurtz
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati defines itself as a "premiere" theatre company, meaning it gives audiences shows they probably have not seen before. That might be a recent Off-Broadway show, something that's been around for a while, or one that hasn't ever been presented locally. Occasionally it presents a world premiere–brand new, never been staged anywhere. That's the case with the dramedy The Match Game by Steven Strafford. You'll feel the characters' pain one moment and be laughing at them uncontrollably the next.

The Match Game is the product of an ETC playwriting competition. It's been workshopped and now staged by Jared D. Doren. He was an intern at ETC back in 1995-1996, and now he's on the staff of the Over-the-Rhine theatre company as its programming and events manager. He's also a talented director, having staged shows at several local theaters. His carefully crafted production of Strafford's new play is his debut in that role at ETC.

So what's The Match Game about? (A quick clarification: Forget about the TV game show with that name.) Here's how the playwright describes his script's story in a Q&A in the program: It's "a play about a woman with cancer dealing with her estranged dad who may or may not have dementia, her insecure brother, his much younger boyfriend, her precocious daughter, and her absent husband, all while throwing a truth-telling mom a birthday party."

That might sound like a far-fetched sitcom, and there is a whiff of that in The Match Game. But Strafford, who has a knack for quick Neil Simon-esque quips, has created believable characters who are for the most part also very humorous. That makes this show one that's watchable and entertaining as well as moving. Doren has assembled a cast of actors who fill each quirky role with energy and humanity.

Jennifer Joplin is Steph, who has "a little bit of cancer," as she puts it. She is the beleaguered hub around whom the action revolves: She needs a bone marrow transplant, but her options are narrowing for a donor. Her long absent father Johnny (Bruce Cromer, one of southwest Ohio's most veteran and accomplished actors) has moved in, claiming he's not able to live on his own any longer, perhaps showing signs of dementia.

Steph is dubious because Johnny has spent most of his life lying about everything and never showing up when he's been needed. But her hard-edged mother Deb (Deb G. Girdler, whose ability to play cynical characters is legendary) and her self-conscious gay brother Brian (Jared Joplin, Jennifer Joplin's real-life brother) have been tested and there's not enough of a match (hence the play's title). Steph refuses to ask her daughter to be tested, and she's hesitant to ask Johnny if he's really ill, so she has concocted a screwy scheme around a birthday party for Deb during which telling the truth will become a party game.

Savannah Boyd plays Steph's daughter Nora, an aspiring high school musical theatre performer. Wiser than her years, Nora is ready to go along on with Steph's harebrained scheme since it involves tap dancing. She's coached by Brian's young boyfriend Sean (the hilarious Henry Howland). Howland plays the swishy role with endearing enthusiasm, and his decor from Anything Goes for Deb's birthday adds a degree of lunacy to the second act.

Steph's constantly absent husband Alan, played ably if briefly by Allen R. Middleton, might be better kept out of sight altogether as he is for two-thirds of the show. The humorless role is underwritten and, while his absence is an undercurrent in Steph's harried life, his rationale about where he's been is underdeveloped, and the character feels unessential.

The role of Steph is the heart of this story, and Jennifer Joplin keeps it beating with genuine if frustrated warmth. Like everyone in The Match Game, Steph has a hard time speaking the truth, but such reticence is something most people can understand. And even though her idea to solve her problem is probably doomed from the start in this truth-averse family, the eventual outcome comes down to a deeply felt finale among Steph, Deb, Brian and Nora. Also adding to the serious side of the story is Cromer as Johnny. He is such a skilled actor that he can play a rumpled man whose veracity is dubious but perhaps understandable. When pressure is applied, Cromer makes him someone who recognizes his flaws and perhaps wishes he might have led a different life.

ETC's design team, scenic and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring and properties curator Shannon Rae Lutz, have created a letter-perfect living room that feels both pleasant and the cluttered product of Steph's upside-down life. The furniture has a lived-in look, but it's in a home with a kind of dignity. The stairway that becomes Nora's tap-dancing performance space is solid hardwood with sturdy turned railing rungs. As always at ETC, it's a detailed set you feel as if you could settle into yourself–even when Sean applies his exuberant nautical theme for the second act.

Playwright Strafford shows genuine talent for crafting characters and spinning a comedic plot with serious intentions in The Match Game. The script could use a bit more tightening, and the ending feels a bit downhearted, but audiences will leave the memory of some very amusing characters and moments.

The Match Game runs through May 5, 2024, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3555.