His Girl Friday
Playwright John Guare's 2003 adaptation of the 1940 Howard Hawks film His Girl Friday, which was, in turn, based on the 1928 hit Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play The Front Page, sets the action in 1939, when Hollywood was in a "golden age" of filmmaking and Americans were debating about how to deal with the rise of Nazism in Germany. I suppose Mr. Guare was attracted to the project because he saw resonances to contemporary debates over involvement in the trumped-up war in Iraq and other issues, but in highlighting those debates he has put a damper on the humor. Even so, Christopher Ashley's current production impresses within the limits of what Mr. Guare has provided.
Set in an era where print journalism was king, His Girl Friday was an attempt to turn a farce about hard-bitten beat reporters climbing over each other for a story into a screwball comedy with a strong romantic element. The pairing of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell was propelled by the fact that Mr. Grant was suave and not overbearing, while Ms. Russell was hilariously pushy and quick-witted (apparently, a lot of the dialogue only followed the rough outlines of the script). Mr. Guare's adaptation makes both charactersHildy Johnson, the former star crime reporter who stops by the press room at the Cook County Jail on her way to Albany and married life, and Walter Burns, Hildy's former editor and husbandinto ambitious strivers, as opposed to schemers who'll do anything (and I mean anything) for a story. Doing so makes both characters more familiar (and, perhaps, more attractive) to contemporary audiences, but it turns their scheming away from farce and into soap opera. It makes the tricks they play on everyone else involved seem puerile and cruel, as opposed to funny. It also deadens the romantic elements that Mr. Hawks so carefully included in the film.
Case in point: despite the sexism of its title, this version makes much of Hildy's reputed skill as a reporter, and her compatriots (all men) seem to have no trouble accepting her as an alpha female in their midst. But, Bensinger, the "prissy" male reporter of the group, is the butt of jokes and cruel tricks and his torture is treated by the script as being somehow justified.
Despite the play's many weaknesses, the La Jolla Playhouse has mounted an impressive revival of it. The technical elements are all first-cabin, starting with Robert Brill's startling scenic design that hides a few surprises, Paul Tazewell's costumes that range from stylish to stressed, David Lander's lighting design that has to account for different environments simultaneously, and Mark Bennett's lively original music and sound design.
With a cast of 23 that includes Broadway veterans, experienced regional actors, quite a few local performers, and several UCSD MFA acting students, Mr. Ashley had his hands full creating vivid stage pictures, timing sequences so the humor comes through, and managing how the audience will identify so many characters (a difficult trick, one with which the program doesn't help much). He has accomplished the mechanics splendidly, and if not everyone's performance had risen to nuanced level by opening night, I suspect that they will continue to develop as the show goes along.
As Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, Douglas Sills and Jenn Lyon make for a well-matched pair, resulting in a draw as they competed for strength of portrayaland audience attention. Donald Sage Mackay, who gave a searing performance in last summer's Playhouse production of Blood and Gifts, makes Hildy's fiancÚ Bruce seem as though he'd actually be in the running for her affections, despite the script's portrayal of him as a mamma's boy. Speaking of mamma, the ever-marvelous Mary Beth Peil manages humorously to be increasingly in search of control with each successive entrance. Patrick Kerr gleefully captures the emotional insecurity of Earl, the man who may be put to death so that the mayor (George McDaniel) and the sheriff (William Hill) might win a tight election.
Other cast members making a strong impression include Matt McGrath as the put-upon Bensinger, Steve Gunderson as Pinkus, the governor's man on a mission, and long-time Old Globe Associate Artist Jonathan McMurtry, whose well-honed sense of comic timing makes his confused Reverend the delight of every scene he's in.
And journalism? Well, let's just say that journalism doesn't quite come off as the dirty, nasty, and completely unethical business that was portrayed in The Front Page. And, maybe that's for the good, but it probably isn't as much fun. At two hours and forty minutes running time, maybe journalism should have conformed to type. Or, maybe the play needed a good editor.
La Jolla Playhouse presents His Girl Friday by John Guare, adapted from the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play The Front Page and the Columbia Pictures film His Girl Friday. Through June 30, 2013, Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00pm; Sun at 7:00pm; Matinees: Saturday/Sunday at 2:00pm, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the University of California, San Diego, campus. Tickets ($15 - $92) may be purchased by calling (858) 550-1010; or visiting LaJollaPlayhouse.org.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, with Robert Brill (scenic design), Paul Tazewell (costume design), David Lander (lighting design), Mark Bennett (sound design and original music), Steve Rankin (fight director), Eva Barnes (voice and dialect coach), Gabriel Greene (dramaturg), and Chuck Means (stage manager)
The cast Douglas Sills, Jenna Lyon, Patrick Kerr, Donald Sage Mackay, George McDaniel, Matt McGrath, Mary Beth Peil, Bill Christ, William Hill, Bethany Anne Lind, Steve Gunderson, Kevin Koppman-Gue, Jonathan McMurtry, Victor Morris, Evan D'Angeles, Dale Morris, James Saba, Mike Sears, and UC San Diego M.F.A. students Michael Hammond, Chaz Hodges, Gerard Joseph and Ronald Washington.