Adapted by John Guare from
The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
and the Columbia Pictures film
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Starring Mark H. Dold, Christopher Innvar and Jane Pfitsch

at Barrington Stage (Mainstage) until August 30

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


Screwball comedy is the genre of film that emerged in the late 1930’s as a subversive response to the Hayes Code and its ruthless grip on censorship. Hayes and his henchman, Joseph Breen, legislated sanctions against Hollywood studios and producers who dared to contravene their puritanical and holier-than-thou litany of restrictions. Not surprisingly, there were filmmakers who took this as a challenge to undermine and flaunt the new rulebook. Billy Wilder, perhaps more than any other, wrote and directed films that managed to get Code approval in spite of themes and situations that contradicted Hayes and his cohorts. Howard Hawks, another A-list studio director, whose career spanned an impressive range of styles, was set to direct the film version of the Broadway hit, The Front Page, but he decided that the role of Hildy Johnson, originally a male, would be played by a woman and she would be the ex-wife of newspaper editor, Walter Burns. Produced in 1940, the film starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and was a great success. Their rapid fire delivery established a sexual energy and tension that escaped the censors’ steely gaze and overworked scissors – at the same time, it set the standard for screwball romantic comedy, as we now know it.
In 2003, London’s National Theatre produced a hybrid adaptation of the original play and the subsequent film version. John Guare wrote the new treatment and added elements of his own that heightened the politics and reduced the central focus of the newsroom. Whereas in the previous incarnations writers desperate for a scoop, playing cards, smoking and exchanging gossip as they waited, inhabited the pressroom, Guare shifted his attention to world issues and romantic affairs. The newsmen became a secondary thought, further emphasized by a number of choral responses that eviscerated their humanity. Barrington Stage Company is currently presenting the play on their Boyd-Quinson Mainstage until August 30, and while it is an attractive presentation, there is a struggle of styles that undermines the production.
Whether it is the script itself or director Julianne Boyd’s handling of it is difficult to distinguish, but the demand of switching from high comedy to drama, even melodrama, eludes her. The actors have been encouraged to adopt the brisk tempo of screwball film acting, but with an ensemble of twenty – a great tribute to BSC’s boldness - the result is frantic rather than snappy. After a short while, the rat-a-tat-tat rhythms exhaust when they should exhilarate.
Guare has included scenes, or added new ones, that should provoke or shock us. When Mollie Malloy leaps to her death and members of the audience laugh, you know that something hasn’t worked. In the second half, when Earl Holub pleads for understanding, we should recognize the brutality of the police and perhaps even let it resonate with current events in our country. But the moment passes quickly and is given no essential weight.
Christopher Innvar meets the play’s demands with ease. He never looks or sounds rushed as he drives the story forward. Jane Pfitsch, playing Hildy opposite him, works hard to match him, but the effort is too much in evidence. Mark H. Dold manages a few good moments in a supporting role while Peggy Pharr Wilson offers a cringe-worthy performance in the Margaret Dumont role.  
“His Girl Friday” is, finally, neither fish nor fowl. It is mildly entertaining but runs out of fuel before it finds its way home.
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