His Girl Friday – La Jolla Playhouse
Built upon the classic play and film, John Guare’s adaptation deftly walks a tightrope. On the one hand is the rat-a-tat humor between protaganists Hildy and Walter, which is juxtaposed on the other hand by life and death global issues. The issues are not only immediate (the imminent hanging of a wrongfully accused prisoner) but massive (the rise of Hitler’s aspirations).
The first 8 minutes of bantering are wearying, giving rise to our fear that the evening will be equally incomprehensible. A clutch of hard boiled newspaper reporters are bantering at high speed, their sentences started by one reporter and finished by another or two. There is negligible plot development until Walter and then Hildy arrive and have at it, or more accurately have at each other.
The isolationist sentiment endemic in America in the summer of 1939 is manifested by most of the reporters, but Hildy and Walter see things differently. Yet on a personal level, the divorced couple (he an editor, she his former reporter) seems to agree on very little. She stopped by to see the old gang in Chicago, en route to her wedding in NYC. He quickly realizes the couple belongs together, but she wants no more to do with Walter. Thus hinges the classic ‘will they or won’t they’ undercurrent used in myriad successful plotlines.
Guare has shown his mettle previously with the amazing Six Degrees of Separation and House of Blue Leaves. Here he takes the best of The Front Page (play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and the subsequent film His Girl Friday and conjures a delightful play. In the incredibly challenging lead roles are Douglas Sills as Walter Burns and Jenn Lyon as Hildy Johnson. Most folks will remember the Howard Hawks film version of the characters, played by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, respectively. Guare wisely moved the production’s setting to the eve of World War 2, the better to heighten the issues at play.
Guare adroitly weaves a third strand into his already clever plot: the role of the journalist in society. Many of the reporters are content to make news if they have nothing to report, and our heroes Walter and Hildy seem tempted to do so as well. But the pair’s willingness to dig for the underlying truth at all costs raises both the stakes and questions of journalistic integrity.
It is plenty to pack into a two hour play, but the density of Guare’s skillful dialogue proves it is possible. The laughs come solidly and often, as do the sobering broader social issues. Under the direction of Christoper Ashley (the Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse), one of America’s great regional theaters has another eye opening production on offer.