His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday
Adapted by John Guare. Directed by Aidan Fennessy. MTC – Playhouse Arts Centre. Aug 16 – Sep 15, 2012.

Who doesn’t remember the wonderful film of His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell – a screwball prizefight where the perfectly matched Grant and Russell traded one-liners like lethal punches? Probably not many people under 50 at best. Perhaps that will work in the MTC’s favour.

In this reworking of both the film and the original play there is much to like, but not a lot to love:- and I so wanted to love it.

The truth is that the script is now very dated and has lost much of its bite and relevance. John Guare seems to have knocked off some of the edge from Hecht/Macarthur’s original play and the fabulous screenplay by Charles Lederer. The story is classic screwball; a divorced husband and wife who now trade insults instead of kisses. Hildy Johnson is a great newspaperman but a lousy wife. Walter Burns is a gun editor, who knows Hildy is his greatest asset. He sets out to keep her from leaving Chicago to marry the boorish and boring Bruce, and entangles her in a news scoop – the escape from prison, on the eve of his execution, of Jewish “terrorist” and “cop-killer” Earl Holub.

This is the largest cast I’ve seen in a play for a very long time, but neither the acting standard, nor the style, are consistent across the board. The required style to make a screwball comedy work is so extreme that you either love it or hate it – and Director Aidan Fennessy, a man of numerous skills, doesn’t seem to love the innate wackiness and lack of realism which are the stylistic trademarks.

Phillip Quast clearly relishes the role of Walter Burns and fits it comfortably. I believed him completely, and he had some lovely bits of business which seemed to belong solely to that character. To use the current buzz phrase, he “owned it.” But there seemed to be little natural chemistry between him and Pamela Rabe as Hildy. They didn’t sizzle as they should, and so much of this play relies on the sizzle. I am a great admirer of Miss Rabe’s; she’s a superb actress, but last night I couldn’t help wondering if she was perhaps sick, or had a throat infection as it was difficult to hear her in the back stalls. There was also a lack of attack, or energy, in her performance and the production in general. Much like Frank Capra films, this needs to be played much larger than life and at break-neck speed, with overlapping dialogue and moves. I missed that frenetic pace that should have reached out and grabbed me and shaken me hard. It needs to be a “go for it” all or nothing approach. Instead, it was a little bit tame.

There are good performances though, aside from Mr Quast’s. John Leary is a delight as both Bensinger and Pinkus; Adam Murphy makes his mark as Diamond Louie; Kate Cole (Molly) and Deirdre Rubinstein (Mrs  Baldwin) add nice comic touches, and it’s always a pleasure to see Grant Piro (Endicott). The set (Tracy Grant Lord) looks authentic, suitably worn, and works well, along with the sound and lighting design, and Hildy Johnson’s costumes are drool worthy.

The MTC has been in a “gap” year awaiting the arrival of new Artistic Director Brett Sheehy, who will announce the 2013 season next week. There have been some odd choices for 2012 and it’s been a roller coaster of hits and misses. This production sits somewhere between. It’s entertaining and sometimes amusing, but not exciting enough to make us say “Thank God it’s Friday.”

Coral Drouyn

Image: Pamela Rabe (Hildy), Peter Houghton (Wilson), Tyler Coppin(McCue), Tim Wotherspoon (Schwartz), Grant Piro (Endicott) and Marco Chiappi (Kruger). Photographer: Jeff Busby.

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