Saturday, July 28, 2012

His Girl Friday

Poor writing and directing highlight HIS GIRL FRIDAY at The Shaw

Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s THE FRONT PAGE was a witty satirical farce about political corruption and the role that newspapermen played in fanning the fires of gossip and sensationalism. The play was made into a movie which starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

John Guare has transformed the movie into a play which attempts to mock amoral and immoral media and politicians. It is the Guare version of the script that the Festival decided to stage.

The movie and original play were delightful. Guare’s version, though filled with laughter, adds world political references and anti-Semitic comments in an attempt to insert a message into the goings on. Director Jim Mezon has, for some reason, ignored Guare’s inserts and went for just the farce. If getting laughs was his vision, why didn’t he just direct THE FRONT PAGE.

Guare has changed the time of the play from the 1920s so that we are experiencing Chicago and the world on the day that Germany accused Poland of inciting what would eventually turn out to be World War II. History proved that it was Germany, in fact, which faked the incident, and used it as an excuse for the invasion. Only intense listening to the lines allows one to grasp this idea, since the lines carrying this message are thrown away.

The story concerns Walter Burns, a hard-boiled editor who learns his ex-wife and former start reporter, Hildy Johnson, is about to marry insurance man and mamma’s boy, Bruce Baldwin, and settle down in Albany, New York. Walter sabotages these plans by getting Hildy to cover just one more case, the upcoming execution of Earl Holub, an anarchist who accidentally shot a policeman.

Holub escapes. The reporters, who are hanging out in the press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, all want to get a scoop on the story.

Holub’s girlfriend leaps to her death through an open window. Horror? No! Reporters acting much like the Keystone Kops charge around, slamming doors, leaving to view the body on the sidewalk below. As for the implications of the impending war, they are basically ignored, both in the physical and verbal stress of the actors. To make matters even more confounding, anti-Semitic comments flow as “comic” relief.

Guare is noted for his “mixing of comic invention with an acute sense of the failure of human relations.” Normally, his style works. However, a combination of his writing and Meon’s misguided direction, causes frustration. Instead of being aware of the underlying horror ahead, we are led to laughing at displays of cruelty with a lack of compassion. Don’t blame the audience for laughing at the horrific. The director has set in motion farcical actions and broad humor which destroys any semblance of message, and the writer has tried to add a depth of ideas into a slight escapist comedy.

Poor writing. Poor directing!

As for the cast, the Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell charm and sophistication are missing. The lines simply don’t give Nicole Underhay (Hildy) and Benedict Campbell (Walter) the latitude to develop meaningful characters. To add to the problems, the duo does not have any emotional connection to each other.

The production does get laughs, especially in the first act. There are exaggerated, farce characterizations, physical and vocal energy. But the question is, for what purpose?

Capsule judgement: Why John Guare didn’t leave well enough alone, or why the powers that be at The Shaw didn’t just produce the original delightful play, is a mystery. Why is the production rudderless under the direction of Jim Mezon? This is one of the most frustrating and irritating productions the Festival has produced.