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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
His Girl Friday
By Elyse Sommer
As if combining the all male newshounds of Front Page with the romantically as well as scoop hungry leading characters of His Girl Friday weren't enough of a challenge, Mr. Guare added his own more serious political layer to the mix. To do so he moved the 20s time frame to 1939, with Europe on the brink of World War II and much of America clinging to "it's not our war" isolationist views. Newspapers were still abundant, with most printing morning and evening editions.
While this triple mashup doesn't really come comfortably together, Boyd has cast it with some of her best regular actors (Christopher Innvar as editor Walter Burns and Mark H. Dold as Bruce Baldwin, his ex-wife and star crime reporter Hildy's soon to be new husband). And Boyd has found a Hildy delightful enough to make you forget Rosalind Russell (well, almost). Under Boyd's clockwork direction this His Girl Friday Guare's problematic more serious overlay doesn't keep this from being an enjoyably frenzied entertainment that's dated in a deliciously authentic way.
The rest of the large cast, probably the largest ever for a non-musical at this theater, adds to the pleasures of this production. It includes Barrington regulars as new to Barrington standouts like Rocco Sisto. Besides the fast-talking newsmen sitting around the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts covering the impending hanging of a cop-killer outside the court house, we meet plenty of other oddball chacters: the somewhat loony Sheriff, the anything-for-a-vote Mayor, a pretty prostitute with a heart of gold, Hildy's overbearing future mom-in-law and. . .yes. . . the about to be hanged cop killer.
The rat-a-tat of the buzzing newsroom establishes what's happening both far away in Nazi clouded Europe as well as in Chicago. The tough talk permeating the atmosphere like a bad odor is a hoot. But it goes on too long, making for a rather slow start to the otherwise fast paced goings on.
The main cause for suspense as the various antics are unleashed revolves around the fate of a man found guilty of killing a cop and whether a scoop exposing his innocence will get Hildy back to on the job .. .and back into editor Walter Burns' arms instead of of heading to Albany and life with insurance salesman Bruce and his mom. Of course, given the genre we're in, there are plenty of hilarious surprises — the convicted man escapes, Walter smells the scoop of a life time, Bruce and mom are arrested. . . don't ask!. But these hilarious mishaps trigger more one liners than suspenseful surprising. There's never a moment when it isn't inevitable that Hildy's brief stop to say hello to her old newsroom pals will put the kibosh on her winding up with Bruce in Albany. The real surprise is how amusing all this craziness that gets unpacked still is.
Thanks to the actors and designers Guare's moving the action to 1939 works just fine. Scenic designer David M. Barber has created a newsroom with loving attention to the chosen period: microphone style phones, manual typewriters and glass paneled doors. Sara Jean Tossetti has dressed everyone to period perfection. You don't have to be old enough to recall the cache of a Lil irresistible Hildy. However changes made to make the darkness of the original Front Page more relevant to contemporary audiences don't work as well. References to the man facing the hangman's noose as a terrorist is an obvious link to tap into anti-Muslim sentiments since 9/11. Peppering the newsmen's interchanges with generous sprinklings of anti-semitic remarks isn't too jarring. But turning the boring but drolly amusing Bruce and his mother into Nazi sympathizers escapes being a major misfire thanks to the actors portraying them.
Mark H. Dold and Peggy Pharr Wilson are so good that you end up not being too put off by Guare's diddling with the characters as written. Despite the ugly pro-Hitler sentiments spouted by Dold's Bruce, Dold manages to make him one of the cast's chief standouts. The same is true of Peggy Pharr Wilson's mother-in-law from hell, especially when she blames some of literature's greatest writers for the shortcomings of women like Hildy ("I warned my son about you. I said, 'A reporter? A woman who writes? For a living!' She told me she was reading Jane Austen! I blame the entire decline of the West on Jane Austen. The Chinese may deform women by binding their feet. The Anglo- Saxons do something worse. They allow their women to write. I despise Edna Ferber, am repelled by Willa Cather and sickened by Pearl Buck. Edith Wharton? A traitor to her class").
The one Guare insertion of darkness that's too hopelessly ham-fisted is when Mollie Malloy the young prostitute who loves the the convicted gunman jumps out the Press Room window. It's not a fake suicide but the real thing, yet Walter and Hildy go on as if nothing have happened. Hardly mix of tragedy and comedy. Typical of this production, Anya Whelan Smith is another standout in this all standout cast.