It’s amazing how a play, originally produced in 1928, can remain fresh, funny and relevant today. In the case of “His Girl Friday,” which opened on Wednesday, August 12 on the Barrington Stage Company’s (BSC) Boyd-Hinson Mainstage in Pittsfield, Mass., that’s due in large part to the various tweaks and updates that have kept the work evolving in various hands over the intervening years.
The play actually started out as “The Front Page” by the esteemed playwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who as veterans of the Chicago newspaper scene, knew all there was to know about the workings of that city’s tabloids, their cynical reporters, the legendary level of the Windy City’s corruption from the police force on up to the Mayor and Governor, and the powerful business interests that called many of the shots. The play, set on the eve of a railroaded anarchist’s execution, takes place in the press room of the Circuit Court building, as eight of city’s most veteran crime reporters vie for the latest scoop, focusing specifically on reporter Hildy Johnson, who has submitted his resignation to go off and get married, and his relationship with his unscrupulous editor, Walter Burns, who will do anything to keep his star reporter with the paper.
“The Front Page” has been filmed several times, but never more successfully than in 1940 as “His Girl Friday,” when Howard Hawks had the brilliant idea to make the “Hildy” character a female journalist and Walter’s ex-wife, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the leading roles. This allowed the banter between editor and reporter to take on a more personal, knowing nature, and make the stakes a bit higher, particularly for Walter who is obviously still in love with his ex, who is leaving to get married.
Remarkably, there had been no stage version incorporating this change in Hildy’s sex until playwright John Guare (“Six Degrees of Separation,” “The House of Blue Leaves”) was commissioned to develop one for Britain’s National Theater in 2012. It is essentially that version, also called “His Girl Friday,” that is being staged here, although Guare has participated in rehearsals in Pittsfield and made some additional tweaks and adjustments for the BSC production.
Helmed by BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, “His Girl Friday” surpasses all expectations and emerges as an engrossing, intelligent romp filled with eccentric yet comic characters with a central romance that everyone will root for. With a cast of 20 playing nearly 30 different parts, Boyd manages to keep all of the play’s complicated parts in steady motion which in this case is no easy matter, considering the speed with which characters enter and exit the stage and the various plot elements that have to be juggled with split second timing. This is not farce, however, but a “serious” comedy that satirizes the newspaper business of the mid-20th century, civic corruption, and American justice with life and death implications.
Guare’s adaptation resets the piece on October 31, 1939, the day that Hitler invades Poland and that will essentially change the world as these characters know it, although they are so self-absorbed in their own business that this occurrence goes virtually unnoticed. Concurrently, the depression is still underway and there are still a lot of people living in poverty, flirting with various political factions in order to find potential solutions, including the hapless anarchist who is set to hang on the gallows being noisily built beneath the windows of the press room. Guare has managed to cleverly insert some relevant parallels to our world today, which cause audience members to visibly sit up and take notice, such as references to unseemly power of corporations, the importance of money to the upper echelons, and even a segment of society’s admiration of Hitler as a true problem solver, reminiscent of a certain segment of our society today that developed an admiration for the manhood and confidence of Vladimir Putin.
To her credit, Boyd has assembled a brilliant cast who are able to give each of Guare’s (and Hecht and MacArthur’s) characters a distinct personality of their own. While some are more exaggerated than others, as is typical for a comedy, they’re all grounded in a reality that brings this period to vivid life. The ringmaster for the evening is the Walter Burns of BSC Associate Artist Christopher Innvar, who captures all of Walter’s seat-of-his-pants crisis management as he cogitates each new complication and with a mere raise of an eyebrow or widening of an eye changes course and comes up with a new solution. Innvar eschews the more typical presentations of Burns as gruff and rude, for a more gentle ruthlessness that allows us to see what Hildy enjoyed about spending time with him and simultaneously what made him so exasperating and distant. Innvar as an actor has always hinted at his leading man capabilities, and it is pleasing to see him jump at the chance.
A real find is the Hildy Johnson of Jane Pfitsch, who is making her BSC debut in this role. She carefully balances Hildy’s inner toughness that has enabled her to rise to the top of the journalistic heap in Chicago, with a more contained, nicer front that she hopes will contribute to her success as the wife of wealthy insurance agent Bruce Baldwin, who she is scheduled to marry the next day in Albany. It is fun to see Pfitsch slowly abandon the socially acceptable front she has developed for Bruce as she gets caught up in the ever-expanding story of the anarchist who eventually escapes essentially into Hildy’s reporter’s hands. Pfitsch can also match Innvar round for round in repartee, as well as hold her own with the misogynistic reporters from the competing papers, and engage is some delicious physical comedy with Innvar or being chased Keystone Kops style around, over and under a table by police and reporters.
Boyd and BSC regular Mark H. Dold have made Bruce into an equally important character, playing up the character’s naïve obtuseness and upper class privilege, so that he becomes a genuine foil for both Walther and Hildy. He garners oodles of laughs as he gets continually “framed” by Walter for various infractions with nearly always disastrous results. When his mother arrives on scene, in a not-quite over the top but definitely audience-pleasing performance by the hilarious Peggy Phar Wilson, Dold seems inspired to reach for even higher levels of comedy.
Equally impressive are the actors portraying the various reporters who manage to deliver distinct performances that capture each man’s distinguishing peccadillos, whether it be the harmonica-playing, over the hill reporter Kruger, James Riordan’s thoroughly uncompassionate McCue, Casey Shane’s cocky Endicott, and Christopher Tocco’s frustrated novelist (FDR as superhero in a sexy potboiler!) Schwartz. Rocco Sisto, frequently seen locally at Shakespeare & Company, lends his comedic talents to the role of the foolishly corrupt sheriff Hartman, who unthinkingly provides the weapon for the anarchist’s escape.
Four of the actors deserve special recognition for their doubling of roles, which require at times some quick and extensive costume changes. Jonathan Spivey is annoyingly funny both as the superior-acting and much-ridiculed reporter Bensinger and later as the guarded courier Lyonel Weatherwax who ultimately stands up to Chicago’s bribery schemes. Robert Zuckerman appears as the quietly insistent Reverend Pickett who is looking to counsel the condemned man but reappears as the snarling, conniving Mayor who wants to hide the last-minute reprieve from the Governor. Robust Ben Caplan creates two distinct characters out of Woodenshoes, the rotund cop from Holland who’s frequently mistaken for a German and as Diamond Louie, Walter’s equally rotund connection to the shadier parts of Chicago. Finally master of accents Ethan Dubin plays Irish obituary writer Sweeney eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child and Earl Holub, the anguished anarchist who will spend a good portion of Act II hiding in a roll-top desk.
Anna Whelan Smith provides offers a poignant, though occasionally shrill, take on Mollie Malloy, who has allowed Earl to move into her specialized “house,” but is subject to the cruel taunts of the reporters who look down upon her profession and doubt her genuine friendship with the escaped man.
The action takes place in David M. Barber’s expertly detailed single set depicting the tall-ceilinged press room, with its array of typewriters, telephones, desks and boxes, with exits to the Cell Room and the Washroom on either side of the stage, double doors that open to a fully formed, but scrimmed elevator lobby, and three huge, floor to ceiling windows that bring in the noisy events from the street below on numerous occasions. It amply contains all the action—even when nearly the entire cast is on stage for whatever chaos seems to be happening at a particular moment.
Sara Jean Tosetti must have a great but challenging time coming up with the vast number of period costumes she has had to create, but they all carry a genuine air of authenticity which contributes significantly to reproducing the atmosphere of 1939 Chicago. Scott Pinkey’s lighting not only accommodates the day to night course of events, but helps bring the outside world into the action, with swirling cop car lights and other effects. Brad Berridge created the sound design, which maintains at least for this listener the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage’s ability to produce the best acoustics in the region, and introduces a plethora of special effects including shrilling bells, frantic sirens, the hammering of the gallows, the constant ringing of telephones and popular music of the 30’s on the radio. The believability of the evening is enhanced by J. Jared Janas’ work on wigs, hair and makeup, with Wendy Waterman providing dialect coaching for the various ethnicities and neighborhoods represented by the characters.
Guare has also done some humorous updating that allows a contemporary audience to grin in recognition or irony at some of the dialogue. For example, he has a character complain about the poor quality of films in 1939, including “Gone With the Wind,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and “The Wizard of Oz,” while the harmonica playing Kruger has trouble remembering the bridge in “Over the Rainbow.”
In many ways, “His Girl Friday” has an extra spark of energy that “The Front Page” lacks, in large part due to Hildy becoming Hildegarde in this revised version. Hildy has clearly had to earn her place among her male colleagues, which Guare indicates by having characters recite her various scoops over the years and the derring-do she employed to obtain them. It will be interesting to see, going forward, which version becomes more popular to revive.
“His Girl Friday” runs through August 30 at the Barrington Stage Company. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413.236.8888 or visit the theater’s website at www.barringtonstageco.org.