His Girl Friday: Justifiable Laughter

Left to right: Angela Brazil as Hildy Johnson, Stephen Thorne as McCue, Lovell Holder (Brown/Trinity

His Girl Friday by John Guare, adapted from The Front Page by Ben Hecht/Charles McArthur & Columbia Pictures Film, Trinity Repertory Company, 9/9/11-10/9/11, http://www.trinityrep.com/on_stage/current_season/CAB.php.

Reviewed by Becca Kidwell

(Providence, RI) John Guare lends his wry wit to his newest creation: His Girl Friday. With the talented cast, masterful direction, and clever design, the pre-World War II press room. With the black and white realities mixed in with the comedy, the play shines a light on the present ambiguities of justice, media manipulation, and political diversion.

The plot revolves around a group of reporters (made up of Stephen Berenson, Brian McEleney, Richard Johnson, Brough Hansen, Lovell Holder, Phyllis Kay, and Stephen Thorne) who have taken the conviction of a man at face value and then spun the story to make an even more sensational tale. This idea of press fabrication is highlighted throughout the show as one reporter works on writing his novel. These reporters do not examine the facts but look only for the biggest disaster they can print.

Enter Walter Burns played by Fred Sullivan, Jr. Mr. Burns does not appear to be most reasonable or ethical journalist of the bunch, but he believes that the prisoner, Holub, will get reprieve from the governor based on self-defense. While still slimy and somewhat under-handed, Burns questions popular opinion and also sees the political positioning that is going on around him.

In the midst of this chaos Hildy Johnson, Burns’ ex-wife played by Angela Brazil, returns to the press office to share the news that she is getting married and leaving her job as a reporter. Hildy Johnson is a tough, self-sufficient woman who does not seem like someone who would be saddled with a mundane existence. Her ex knows this and little by little wears her resistance down until she begins to agree to help him with the story about the convict.

Fred Sullivan, Jr. is in top form as the suave albeit smarmy Walter Burns; he turns Burns into a complex character that could have remained a caricature in someone else’s hands. Sullivan comes off as a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant with a dash of his own brusque exuberance and charm. Angela Brazil brilliantly complements Fred Sullivan, Jr.’s performance with her own independent, hard-hitting, yet still feminine Hildy Johnson. Brazil’s Hildy stands her ground against the prejudicial male-world and rises above it. Brazil brought compassion, humor, and sensuality to another role that could have been a caricature in someone else’s hands.

The rest of the cast (the above-mentioned reporters, Janice Duclos, and Phillipe Bowgen) keep the slapstick rolling at dizzying speeds as each one of them is cast in two roles. This inside-audience joke works well on it’s own; for example, when Brian McEleney transforms from an uptight reporter to a sleazy loan shark, laughter arose out of the sheer absurdity of such a quick and flawless transformation. All of the double-cast cast make these transitions without a moment of hesitation. Philliipe Bowgen stands out with his portrayal of Holub, the Jewish convict. Bowgen’s performance is on par with many performances in Holocaust movies and reminds the audience of the realities of our own world.

A young Jewish man has been sentenced to hang for shooting a cop and has been called a “terrorist” by the majority of the press and political pundits. The word “terrorist” strikes the core of every American’s heart particularly since the show began previews two days before September 11, 2011–and an unsubstantiated claim of terrorism based upon prejudiced ethnic profiling brings history back to the foreground. While primarily in subtext, Guare’s point can be understood by anyone willing to listen.

The hustle and bustle of the classic newsroom, splendidly designed by Eugene Lee combined with the classic costumes (with a twist) of William Lane take the audience back to old Hollywood mysteries. The audience is transported to a simpler time to examine a more complex time–its own. Curt Columbus created a fast-paced world of craziness that seems pretty sane. Trinity Repertory Company’s production of His Girl Friday gives large amounts of laughter and should consider even further-stretching commercial possibilities of this show.

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