His Girl Friday, by John Guare, based on The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the Columbia Pictures film written by Charles Lederer. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Reporters confront Rocco Sisto as Sherrif Percival B. Hartman; photo: Kevin Sprague
"I meant to be with you on our honeymoon. I did."
The melodrama, The Front Page, opened on Broadway in August, 1928 and was the first big hit play of the season, against all odds. Newspaper plays did not usually inspire big audiences but Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur ventured everything in the creation of this play, utilizing their own personal experiences and not sparing their audience the saucy, sleazy language of the men of the newsroom. Their story about the rivalry and love/hate relationship of editor Walter Burns (played by Osgood Perkins, father of Anthony Perkins) and his former star reporter Hildy Johnson (played by Lee Tracy) was juicy and evocative and downright dirty. Audiences took to it and it ran 276 performances and received kudos from all sides.
It was revived four times on Broadway and has been made into four films as well. In 1931 Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien played Walter and Hildy; in 1974 Walter Matthau played Walter and Jack Lemmon played Hildy with Susan Sarandon as his girlfriend. A 1988 film version, Switching Channels, using different names, utilized the talents of Burt Reynolds as the editor, Kathleen Turner as the reporter and Christopher Reeve as her fiance. This version is based, somewhat, on the 1940 screwball comedy version, His Girl Friday, which featured Cary Grant as Walter, Rosalind Russell as Hildy and Ralph Bellamy as the fiance. It is that version of the story that author John Guare has adapted into this very funny play now on stage at the Boyd-Quinson mainstage of Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA.
After a slow, long startup - there is much information to impart to the audience - the play rapidly turns into the kind of comedy play that can only be described in one way: funny. Very, very funny. In brief the story is this: awaiting the execution of a convicted anarchist killer a group of newsmen confront the issue of the killer's escape from jail and his subsequent flight into the arms of a recently retired reporter who is on her way to her wedding. Chaos ensues. That may not sound funny, but believe me, it is.
Director Julianne Boyd has employed some old favorites in the leads and in supporting roles and she has added to the mix a few new faces who add immeasurably to the texture of the custard cream pie that is this production. While no one throws a cream pie into anyone's face, they might as well have added that in. There isn't one joke format that isn't otherwise employed here. Luckily this company is adept at playing broad comedy so the end result is not insulting in any way, it is just fun.
Christopher Innvar plays Walter Burns with the just the right touch of sardonic humor tempered with sarcasm and sprinkled with charm. It is very clear from the outset that he is really fond of his ex-wife and former star reporter. His outrageous choice of words and practical jokes are designed to backfire and when they do, Innvar's Walter takes the turnarounds with lumps of salt and enjoys every lick he gets. Walter is a master manipulator and Innvar plays that aspect of this man for all it's worth. He has been enjoyable before but not to this extent. Here, with Guare's dialogue, Lederer's words and Hecht and MacArthur's concepts, the actor's winning way, at high speeds, wins out. He is, in short, an excellent choice both for the role and for his paramour Hildy Johnson.
She is played with a subtle, 1940s style by Jane Pfitsch. She is pert, perky and petite, as they used to say, and she performs one pay-off sequence after another throughout the play. She plays off Innvar's Walter and Mark H. Dold's Bruce to perfection constantly subtly setting the two men into personal combats that she enjoys immensely. Pfitsch plays the paranoia of reinvolving herself with her ex-husband Walter to absolute perfection. At the same time she plays the young nurturer to Dold's Bruce with a charm and seeming alacrity that feels totally against her basic character and, it turns out, actually is just that. It took one act, but I finally got Rosalind Russell out of my brain and let Jane Pfitsch in, and that made her second act absolutely divine.
Mark H. Dold has the rare treat of stepping into the shoes of Ralph Bellamy who mastered the role of handsome idiot boyfriend in more than a dozen films. Like Bellamy Dold makes Bruce into someone just a few paces west of reality. Unlike Bellamy Dold never seems to be acting. His take is so real that it is frightening. Dold's Bruce gets sympathy because he finds himself actually suffering for the treatment he and his mother receive from all sides. The performance he gives could not be better for this play.
Highlighting this presentation are four character roles played by genuine characters. Earl Holub is played to whiny perfection by Ethan Dubin. As the escaped convict Dubin has a great speech and a lot of strange stuff to do and say and everytime it is his turn you care absolutely captivated by the man. I found myself actually praying for the reprieve it seems this man should get. Rocco Sisto as the bumbling idiot sherrif takes the stage and holds it fast every time he has a speech to make or a dialogue to speak. He has the kind of on-stage charisma that completely takes away your breath.
Anya Whelan Smith has a wonderful role in Mollie Malloy, a prostitute who has never known respect and admiration until meeting the convict who treasures her. Smith is very moving at every turn and her final scene of sacrifice for love is touching, a heart-stopper, a triumph for a young actress. The best actress on the stage, however, is Peggy Pharr Wilson playing Bruce's mother. This actress, as ever, wins the night with her portrayal of an egoistic, monomother who can cite chapter and verse of any rules that have been disobeyed, any decisions that aren't her own. Mrs. Baldwin is decomposed in this play and Wilson takes that so literally that the fun continues through the tragedy of her life. She is worth the price of admission and then some. I'd see the play again just to watch her character grow from grande dame to damn mess.
Every actor in the company is right on with characterization and realization and the ensemble of men and women only do the right things at the right times.
The set by David M. Barber is very traditional for this play with the exception of a fine "scrim" wall that allows us to see what in most productions we would only hear. Sara Jean Tosetti's 1939 costumes are just right with their slight hint of the twenties gone by and the forties on the verge. Scott Pinkney has provided adequate lighting for the play but he never gives us more than the needed illumination. J. Jared Janas has provided fine wigs and makeup design for the characters.
I liked this production a great deal. As stated, the start up is slow but once the play gets going and the humor begins to build it is a delectable evening's entertainment. Playwright Guare has provided some political insights that are interesting though nowhere near central to the story or the timeframe of the play. They are good historic points, however, and they are worked in to the right moments in the play. After all, in 1928 political issues are not what they would be twenty-one years later when the film was made, nor another seventy years further on when this production was planned. A good evening, worth every penny and every minute spent with it. Just don't expect Rosalind Russell or Cary Grant. They are not visible on this stage, but Innvar and Pfitsch make it all so very worthwhile.
Anya Whelan Smith as Mollie and Jane Pfitsch as Hildy Johnson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Peggy Pharr Wilson and Hal Miers; photo: Kevin Sprague
Christopher Innvar and Mark H. Dold; photo: Kevin Sprague
His Girl Friday plays through August 30 at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage of Barrington Stage Company located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at barringtonstageco.org.