In his house program note, Bob Hetherington suggests that the original version of The Front Page (written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and first produced in 1928) could justly be placed “alongside Long Day’s Journey, Streetcar, Our Town and Death of a Salesman.” Perhaps so, but judging from the Shaw Festival’s first production of His Girl Friday—which has been adapted from the original play and the Columbia Pictures version of His Girl Friday, Howard Hawkes, director (1940) by John Guare—that assertion is completely unsupportable.
To truly stand as equals amongst such illustrious company, the lead characters have to shine brilliantly while the supporting roles reinforce or complement the dramatic action as required. In Jim Mezon’s production the opposite is true, producing precious few scenes of unbridled hilarity; the rest largely suffocated by the principals who spend too much of their time declaiming lines fortissimo e vivace so that the overall tone acquires the sameness of—necessarily—Peter Hartwell’s singular set. Variety is the spice of life. (Anyone who has seen any of the film versions will soon pine for a “camera-2” and establishing shots.)
Starring in her second major role of this season (cross-reference below), Nicole Underhay can’t find right tenor or tone to breathe believable life into ace reporter Hildy Johnson. (Hawkes’ dared to change the original material, giving Hildy a sex change and, accordingly love interests with men.) You know there’s trouble in the interpretation/direction department when her biggest laugh of the night comes from a throwaway prostitute joke.
The pivotal part of Johnson’s ex-husband, former editor and get-the-story-at-any-cost editor (Walter Burns) has been assigned to the Shaw’s leading-man veteran, Benedict Campbell. His rapid-fire delivery as the outwardly heartless, inwardly sympathetic “newsoholic” worked for a few moments then settled into a routine that cried out for subtle variation. Sadly for all concerned, there’s no battle-of-the-sexes spark between Hildy and Walter, much less enough chemistry to make anyone care whether they get back together or not.
Happily, several members of the ensemble step into—and unwittingly steal—the limelight, providing the most memorable moments of the show.
Fresh from his triumph as Doc Delaney in last night’s opening of Come Back, Little Sheba (cross-reference below), Ric Reid switches modes from complex lost soul to shunned newsroom-hack, U.S. isolation advocate, Bensinger (a position his layabout colleagues reinforce from their actions towards the bathroom-troubled reporter at every possible opportunity). A late-edition meeting with Walter and Hildy scored the highest rating on the funny meter (Reid’s timing, grimaces and physical smarts made the sensitive-rump-skewered-by-a-wooden-desk corner an absolute howler: never has becoming the butt of a joke turned out so well!), warranting every bit of applause it garnered.
Lorne Kennedy’s characterization of Pinkus (the Governor’s envoy with a reprieve for wrongly convicted murderer Earl Holub—Andrew Bunker: too much accent, not enough range) was laden with wry yuks in the first instance before spilling over to this incredibly nuanced actor’s unbeatable skills in all things farcical. (How fascinating that the devastation engendered by alcohol as seen by William Inge in Sheba now brought a few moments of side-splitting comedy: ain’t the theatre grand!)
For the women, Wendy Thatcher’s encore as the hoity-toity Mrs. Baldwin (replete with a scathing recital of female writers: Willa Cather is simultaneously squirming and giggling in her pens-down domain)—unfortunately, her son Bruce—Kevin Bundy doing his best and all that was asked—was more or less a one trick pony: not quite a chip off the old block of the veterans that rose to the fore.
Finally, Kiera Sangster’s sight gag as “Her” (the alluring woman flies across the stage causing every male in the place to stop in his tracks then lasciviously honk, hoot and leer) triggered the best payoff of the production with her final dash through the decidedly madcap pressroom. If Mezon could have fired up a few more of these magical inventions and drawn more nuance from the stars, this show might have earned a “Stop the Presses” notice and become an early edition that couldn’t be missed. JWR