La Jolla Playhouse’s His Girl Friday is silly, fun, and very well done
By Diana Saenger
It’s 1939 Chicago in the courthouse pressroom, buzzing with cynical reporters anxious to capture the next big story and do it better than the competitive colleague sitting next to them. Amid the front-page stories about world politics heating up with the threat of World War II, is the tale of Earl (Patrick Kerr), a simple down-and-out immigrant who’s been sentenced to hang right outside the window of the pressroom for killing a cop.
While waiting for the 7 a.m. death knell to toll — or a possible reprieve from the governor — the reporters rev up with anxiety in conversations about the highs and lows of their lives while pounding typewriter keys and spouting out lines from their stories.
Audiences attend live productions for different reasons – to be inspired, educated, entertained or just have fun — and in this adaptation of “His Girl Friday” by playwright John Guare, directed by Christopher Ashley (La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director), fun is the key and all the rest is there for good measure … and you’re gonna love it!
The dapper Walter Burns (Douglas Sills), editor of Chicago’s most-read daily, enters the pressroom to learn the best reporter around has stopped by to bid farewell to her colleagues. Hildy Johnson (Jenn Lyon) broke gender barriers in the newsroom and became Burn’s top reporter, who would stop at nothing to get the truth behind every story. Hildy is also Burn’s ex-wife, who is about to leave news racket behind to marry insurance salesman Bruce (Donald Sage Mackay). As Walter Burns, Sills mirrors a lot of the charms Cary Grant exhibited in the role from the 1940 movie version of the play.
Lyon has the go-getter determination of the movie’s lead, Rosalind Russell, but finds her own pluckiness when she heads off Burn’s insults or come-ons as he baits her. “I’m immune to your charms,” she announces as she types up her next big story for Burns with the speed of a bullet train.
When a timid and agitated Molly Malloy (Bethany Anne Lind) enters the pressroom to explain that Earl is innocent and was framed by the mayor and police chief, who hope to use Earl as a scapegoat for the town’s turmoil and pickup votes in next week’s election, Hildy listens and her story takes on a new focus.
The large cast creates real characters who keep the hurried pace in full speed to the play’s climax. Sills is great in his thunderous dictates as an editor who needs to get it right or when insisting Hildy can’t leave to get married when the story of her life is at her fingertips.
Lyon is spot-on in every situation. From the dismissing of her fiancée to sending his meddling mother (Mary Beth Peil) on a wild goose chase that lands her in jail, Hildy remains at the typewriter rarely missing a beat.
As the hapless couple fighting for justice and the American ideals of life liberty and happiness, Lind and Kerr are excellent. Kerr easily draws sympathy for Earl’s story and Lind heightens the plausibility of Earl’s innocence through her compassion and desire to bring out the truth behind the allegations against him.
The 1940’s “His Girl Friday” was part of the screwball comedies of the era characterized by a female who dominates the relationship with the male lead. Each featured fast-paced dialogue, half-baked situations, and plot lines about dating and marriage. Guare’s adaptation maintains these elements, but also adds some thoughtful talk about the never-ending struggle of people to be free from tyranny and corruption.
If you’re familiar with the script, you know the crucial set piece is a roll-top desk. Scenic designer Robert Brill purposefully integrates that desk into his pressroom, which helps draw the audience further into the antics.
If you go
What: “His Girl Friday’”
When: Matinees, evenings to June 30
Where: Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD campus
Box Offie: (858) 550-1010
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