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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Guthrie's His Girl Friday
sprays bullet-fast comedy

His Girl Friday
Courtney B. Vance and
Angela Bassett

Take a brace of hard-bitten tabloid reporters, for whom a man about to be hanged is nothing more than fine copy; an editor, hell-bent on luring his ex-wife and top reporter away from a new husband and back into his newsroom and bed; a hapless death row anarchist, who has shot a policeman and awaits the gallows at dawn; and a corrupt sheriff and city mayor and you have the ingredients of John Guare's new play, His Girl Friday. It is an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur's classic The Front Page and Columbia Pictures' film His Girl Friday. Under Joe Dowling's adroit direction, this dark comedy sizzles through its entertaining arc, slick as the workings of a well-oiled gun.

Guare sets his play in the press room of Chicago's City Hall on August 31, 1939, the day before Hitler's troops marched into Poland and launched World War II. Set designer John Lee Beatty creates an authentic-feeling, early 20th century room, complete with coffered ceiling, that is cluttered with upright vintage telephones, a table, desks, typewriters and a gin bottle. Best of all, its three arched windows open onto a dimly lit space, suggesting a deep courtyard. From the depths of this place, we hear the repetitive "thunk-thunk" sound of the gallows being tested for the 7:00 a.m. hanging.

Dowling works with a strong cast, led by the wife and husband team of Angela Bassett as glamorous Hildy Johnson, ex-ace reporter, and Courtney B. Vance as Walter Burns, her ex-editor and ex-husband. The stage sparks with their energy and the easy magnetism between them.

Bassett finds the flint and the softness in Hildy. She believes she's en route to a new life as the wife-to-be of Bruce (Karl Kenzler), a ho-hum insurance salesman and mama's boy in Albany, NY. Much of the play's oomph comes from watching Hildy's struggle as she whip-saws between this dreamed-of white picket-fence life and the visceral temptations of the press room and breaking stories. When escaped convict Earl Holub (Kris L. Nelson) swings through the open window and practically into her lap, Hildy sets to work on an impromptu interview. She's got a scoop and she knows it. She also begins to intuit that before all else, she's a "newspaper man." Safe Bruce and Mama and Albany begin to recede.

Vance's Walter Burns matches Hildy's vibrancy. He's a ruthless editor, manipulative, determined and crafty as a fox. He's a newspaper man to his toes, who keeps a handy mobster on call. Yet he's straight enough to recognize that the real story is not the hanging, but the corruption at city hall behind the hanging. Vance's timing, whether verbal or physical is spot on. He fires one-liners like bullets and, when outraged Bruce barges into the pressroom, Vance strides towards him, leaps and lands straddle-legged and nose-to-nose to confront him.

Five of the seedy reporters, who find it more convenient to make up a sensational story than to investigate it, are played with rapid-fire wit by Raye Birk, Bill McCallum, Bob Davis, Shawn Hamilton, and Terry Hempleman. The sixth, prissy Roy V. Bensinger amusingly played by Jim Lichtscheidl, is a poetry-writing isolationist who provides some of the political tenor of the times.

As thuggy Diamond Joe, Zach Curtis could be more surly to offset the sweetness of characters like Wayne A. Evenson's city hall police sergeant Woodenshoes, Mathew Amendt's young obits writer Sweeney, Nelson's fresh-faced murderer Holub, and Mark Rosenwinkel's frayed messenger from the governor, Silas Pinkus.

Reginald Vel Johnson captures the bull-headed opportunism of Sheriff Hartman, and Peter Michael Goetz plays his partner in corruption, the Mayor, with tawdry flair.

Also with flair, diminutive Barbara Bryne battleships on stage, swathed in furs, as Bruce's redoubtable mother in a vignette role, and Kate Eiffrig taps the vulnerability of prostitute, Molly Malloy.

Trilby hats, wide-collared suits and suspenders abound in Jess Goldstein's period costume design. Hildy wears a natty red, tailored outfit with a saucy hat. Adding to the fun, even the ushers on opening night were dressed in 1930s press gear.

Director Dowling works with a deft cast who can deliver Guare's witty dialogue at machine-gun speed and execute the precise timing of his physical comedy with polished ease-no small theatrical feat.

Throughout its two and a half hour length, this North American premiere is guaranteed to entertain.

His Girl Friday July 2 - July 31, 2005. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m.. $ 15 - $50.00. Guthrie Mainstage, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224. Toll Free (612) 44-STAGE or, www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


- Elizabeth Weir



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