All photos by Kevin Sprague
Zany comedy His Girl Friday could be best play of Berkshire season
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray
Larry Murray: A gleeful depiction of life in the pressroom at Chicago Police Headquarters, His Girl Friday has it all – comedy, farce, drama, tragedy and romance. It’s a super-sized tale that sweeps across the stage in Pittsfield, boasting a huge cast of twenty. While set in 1939, the outing is filled with terrorists, crooked politicians and lazy journalists that could be told today. The story is as fresh as if was pulled from the headlines – those of a comic book, or the headline crawl under a Fox News report. John Guare, who revisited the original play and film has mashed the two together for a delightful evening of serious romance with some of the funniest antics seen onstage in the Berkshires in a long time.
Gail M. Burns: The play is screwball romantic comedy layer on top of a most serious crime drama. In August, 1939, in Chicago, a Czech immigrant, now an American citizen, named Earl Holub (Ethan Dubin) is condemned to be hanged for killing a police officer. The press has assembled in the Criminal Courts Press Room overlooking the scaffold in the square below, waiting for the execution, which the Mayor (Robert Zuckerman) and the Sheriff (Rocco Sisto) have rushed through the courts to win the large German voting bloc in the imminent election. Even Walter Burns (Christopher Innvar), editor of the Chicago Record, deigns to put in an appearance, and so does his ex-wife and ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Jane Pfitsch), who is passing through town with her fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Mark H. Dold), an insurance salesman, and his overbearing mother (Peggy Pharr Wilson), on their way to the Baldwin’s home in Albany, NY, where Hildy and Bruce will be married the next day. The story gets going when Holub escapes and goes on the lam, and everyone suspects either the Dutch police officer Woodenshoes (Ben Caplan) or the prostitute Mollie Malloy (Anya Whelan Smith), neither of whom is the guilty party.
The back story to this script is almost as convoluted as the plot itself. To clarify – in 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur penned a straight play entitled The Front Page about a pair of Chicago newspaperMEN named Walter Burns and Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson. It was a huge hit and it still frequently produced today. In the late 1930’s Howard Hawks made a film version called His Girl Friday (1940) in which Hildy became Hildegard, played by Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant as Walter. Except for the gender swap, Hawks instructed his screenwriter Charles Lederer to stick closely to Hecht and MacArthur’s original, which he greatly admired. What Guare did in the early years of the 21st century – this show had its world premiere in London in 2003 – was bring Lederer’s script to the stage, which required incorporating more of Hecht and MacArthur’s dialogue because there are things you can do in film that you can’t do onstage.
Guare also made some significant changes to the story the newspapermen – and Hildy calls herself a newspaperman, never a newspaperwoman – are so avidly chasing. In the original the condemned man is white and he has murdered a black cop. The Mayor and Sheriff are anxious to hang him publicly to secure the “colored vote.” Guare makes the slain cop white but a German-American Nazi sympathizer, and the condemned man a Czech who has recently escaped the Nazis, although not before watching them murder his family. There is much political talk of American isolationism, which was the popular sentiment of the day, and support for Hitler, who had done much to rescue Germany from the disastrous financial situation it was in after losing World War I. At the very end of Guare’s play Walter reveals that Hitler has invaded Poland that very night, while Chicago was busy chasing Holub.
Larry: Of the four major theatre companies in the Berkshires, the Barrington Stage Artistic Director Julianne Boyd is the one remaining leader who still directs at least one play or musical each year, and her stamp is unmistakable. Her plays invariably either break your heart or send you into paroxysm of uncontrollable laughter. And in His Girl Friday, she has done both.
Gail: While there are plenty of laughs in this play, but as you can tell they are layered on top of some very serious issues. A man is about to hang, a police officer has been killed, politicians are venally corrupt, a woman commits suicide, and another man is murdered off stage, and the press view this all with the kind of callous disinterest that they must employ in order to retain their own sanity in this hellish world.
Larry: For me, watching the familiar actors on stage was like a family reunion, of Barrington Stage, for all the favorites were there: Mark H. Dold, Christopher Innvar, Gordon Stanley, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Who did I miss, Gail?
Gail: Robert Zuckerman, who plays Reverend Cyrus Pickett as well as The Mayor, has long been a mainstay at Barrington Stage. And although Rocco Sistois making his BCS debut, he is a founding member of Shakespeare & Company and no stranger to Berkshire audiences, having most recently played the title role in Richard II in 2013.
Larry: Having bumped into Innvar at various BSC events over the past few weeks, and from his verbosity, it was clear he was well on his way to inhabiting the role of Walter Burns, a newspaper man with drive and vision, unlike his lazy colleagues in the dismal press room who sat around waiting for news to happen. Burns made it happen. And he had a fire in his belly not just for headlines, but for Hildy who matched him blow for blow as he tried to lure her away from her future husband. Dold once again created a stunning character on stage, a character that cracked up the audience time and again with his unique take on innocence and obliviousness.
All photos by Kevin Sprague
Gail: Rave as we must about our old favorites, Pfitsch, a BSC newcomer, is absolutely amazing as Hildy. She is the heart and soul of the show, physically fearless thanks to a brilliant costume by Sara Jean Tosetti that allows her to jump, crawl and climb easily, safely, and modestly while always looking like a perfectly dressed professional woman circa 1939. Guare has created a wonderful character for her, completely independent and thoroughly competent. You never question for a moment that Hildy is the best at what she does. And boy, can that girl type!
The other two women are also outstanding. Smith’s role is complete tragic in the midst of all the comedic chaos, and her final exit is heart-wrenching. And Wilson earned a solo round of applause for her brief and blazing farcical turns as the Uber-Mama from Hell. Guare has given Mrs. Baldwin a special hatred for female writers and Wilson delivers her tirade against the likes of Jane Austen, upon whom she hangs “the entire decline of the West”, Edith Wharton “a traitor to her class,” and Agatha Christie “that Anti-Christ” before concluding: “Why the world is focusing on Mussolini and Hitler when the world has all these women writers running amok?”
Larry: There is only one set – designed by David M. Barber – but what a magnificent recreation of an early 29th century municipal building it was, overlooking a public square surrounded by skyscrapers. A scrim upstage revealed the adjacent hallway, meshing perfectly with Scott Pinkney’s brilliant lighting of the pressroom, and dusky portrayal of the world outside its window. That the prop person found a dozen ancient phones of the type used in those days was nothing short of a miracle, and the authentic chairs blended nicely with the neutral desks and other appurtenances of an office of that period.
Gail: Maybe it was just the angle at which I was seeing the show, but I wished the actors had held those candlestick phones slightly below their mouths instead of directly opposite them so that their mouths would have been visible throughout the rapid fire newsroom patter.
Larry: Not having seen the original play nor the movie, I can only judge it in its present context, and the genius is not in its plot, or even its characters despite the brilliance of the scenes between Burns, Johnson, and Baldwin, but in its fiercely fought racquet-ball dialogue. In the scenes between the newsmen whole sentences were broken down into short phrases shared by the various denizens of the newsroom. At times it sounded like a ball falling down a flight of stairs, and delivered in allegretto fashion, sometimes difficult to keep up. But just the sheer bravado of the concept and its hilarious execution was a big enough payoff to make the loss of a word here and there worth it all.
Gail: This is, by modern standards, a very large cast, and Boyd has done a neat trick with the roles she has doubled. I was especially impressed with Ethan Dubin, who I had seen and reviewed last season at the Adirondack Theatre Festival’s production of The Whale, as both Holub and Sweeney, the hapless and very young obituary writer for the Record, who Walter tries to rope into writing the Holub story, despite the fact that his wife is in labor, before Hildy comes on the scene. Dubin created two very memorable and high energy characters and it was hard to tell they were played by the same actor. Jonathan Spivey, who was so delightful earlier this season as The Barber in Man of La Mancha and who plays the dual roles of Besinger and Lyonel Weatherwax here, and Zuckerman, accomplish similar acting coups.
Larry: In a time when the seriousness of theatre sometimes overshadows the fact that it is actually a form of entertainment, it was a delight to go back in time to recall the joys that the art form can bring. At two and a quarter hours in length – with a merciful intermission to stretch our legs, of course – it clocks in as 50% longer than most plays today which are 90 minutes. Yet with rapid fire dialogue, nonstop action (again, credit director Boyd and her cast for finding a hundred little details to add) and a merry flurry of plot threads to unite the whole tapestry, it was time well spent. In fact as the dialogue between the newsmen is taking place in act One, Gordon Stanley, as Kruger, is playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his harmonica, and asking if anyone remembers the middle part. How he gets his answer, in Act Two, is ingenious.
Gail: The film is only 92 minutes long as well, and one of the few grumbles I heard from surrounding audience members was the length of this production. Comparing this script with The Front Page and Charles Lederer’s screenplay, the added length here comes from the fusion of the two earlier versions with Guare’s desire to add his own unique voice to the proceedings. It’s a tasty Melange of Hecht, MacArthur, and Lederer, with a Glaze of Guare.
Larry: His Girl Friday is what I would call a dense play – but stuffed with a thousand brilliant comic moments that my eyes kept discovering. For example, the moment when Mark Dold was doing a clever bit of business upstage left, Hildy and Walter were scrapping with each other downstage right. There are more Easter eggs here than in even the most obscure motion pictures. I am convinced I missed a lot of them because the action never stops. So in my recommendation that readers rush to get tickets now – like Walter and Hildy’s love affair, they might find it is just as delicious the second time around, too.
Gail: Boyd and her design team have indeed stuffed this play as full of visual surprises as Guare has filled it with crackling word play; and both have made sure that there are plenty of serious ideas to chew on as well – fast-paced evening of fun and so much more!
Barrington Stage Company presents His Girl Friday, Adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the Columbia Pictures Film, Directed by Julianne Boyd; Scenic design, David M. Barber; Costumes, Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting, Scott Pinkney; Sound, Brad Berridge; Wig, hair, makeup, J. Jared Janas; Fight Choreographer, Ryan Winkles; Dialect Coach, Wendy Waterman; Director of Production, Jeff Roudabush; Press Representative, Charlie Siedenburg; Production Stage Manager, Renee Lutz.
Cast: James Riordan (McCue), Christopher Tocco (Schwartz), Casey Shane (Endicott), Brent Langdon (Wilson), Gordon Stanley (Kruger), Anya Whelan Smith (Mollie Malloy), Ben Caplan (Woodenshoes/ Diamond Louie), Johnathan Spivey (Bensinger/ Lyonel Weatherwax), Christopher Innvar (Walter Burns), Rocco Sisto (Sheriff Percival B. Hartman), Ethan Dubin (Sweeney/ Earl Holub), Jane Pfitsch (Hildy Johnson), Robert Zuckerman (Reverend Cyrus Pickett/ Mayor), Mark H. Dold (Bruce Baldwin), Peggy Pharr Wilson (Mrs. Baldwin). August 6-30, 2015. Two hours and fifteen minutes, at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Union Street, Pittsfield MA, http://barringtonstageco.org 413 236-8888