This review has been updated. See below for details.
Clattering typewriters, jangling telephones and a haze of cigarette smoke, once journalism's inalienable backdrop, can no longer be found in any newsroom on Earth. But those who crave a glimpse into the era when a word-slinger's scoop could tear up Page One can find it at "His Girl Friday" at La Jolla Playhouse.
Robert Brill's detailed rendering of the dingy press room in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, along with sound designer Mark Bennett’s bells, whistles, clicks and clacks, eloquently establish the distinctive, extinct feel of the 1930s news business — and make the perfect setting for screwball comedy.
This "His Girl Friday" is John Guare's 2003 adaptation of both the 1931 Howard Hawks film of the same name, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and the 1928 play it was based on, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page."
Guare has chosen his favorite bits of both versions, keeping the Hawks film's biggest departure from its source: turning burned-out newsman Hildy Johnson into a woman, hard-driving editor Walter Burns into her ex-husband, and their belligerent rapport into rekindling romance. He's also moved the action from 1931 to 1939 and updated the plot to comment on isolationist tensions in America before World War II.
What he's lost is Hawks' concise treatment of the initial exposition. The film opens with Hildy telling Walter that she's quitting the paper to marry an insurance man. Heartbroken Walter, too wily to beg, wins her back instead by persuading her to cover one last story.
But in Guare's version, as in the original play, neither Walter nor Hildy appears right away. Instead, the exposition is handed over to the city's down-at-heels crime beat reporters, playing cards as they wait for a hanging the next morning.
Not only do they have to tell us who'll be hanged (in Guare's version it's Earl Holub, a Czech immigrant who shot a policeman in self-defense and was pegged by the press as a Communist terrorist conspiring to force America into the war) and why (the city's corrupt officials are up for reelection and courting the isolationist vote) — but they have to explain who Walter and Hildy are and why we should care.
It's a daunting amount of information, and director Christopher Ashley has his fine actors deliver it at a breakneck pace. Their rapid-fire, overlapping patter achieves a symphonic momentum that is impressive and a pleasure to experience, although I definitely would have failed a test on the content.
But of course nobody's giving a test. The plot, whatever points it may make about the relationship among politics, the media and the truth, is really just a pretext for getting Walter and Hildy into the same room, and once they're there, the real fun begins.
Douglas Sills brings a blustery energy to Walter, who'll do anything for a scoop; he even talks a reporter out of attending the birth of his child ("Don't be dictated to by the squalling demands of a child you've never met.").
Sills makes the most of this opportunity to deliver some of the most deliciously sarcastic lines in theater history with an air of sinister amiability. (Still, I couldn't help thinking from time to time, "You know who would be great in this part? Cary Grant.")
Jenn Lyon as Hildy, blond and perfectly turned out in a cool blue-and-cream suit and hat (by costume designer Paul Tazewell), looks as implausible and refreshing as an exotic dessert in her grim surroundings. Her performance crackles with all the charisma of the 1930s screen stars she channels.
Yes, they're the smartest, sneakiest and most resourceful characters onstage; Walter easily makes mincemeat of Hildy's slow-witted, mama's boy of a fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Donald Sage Mackay).
But are they actually attracted to each other? The madcap plot, veering from silly to tragic and back without a pause for breath, doesn't give them much time to smolder. And their clever banter never suggests more than friendly affection.
Newspapermen to their bones, they seem to get together just because it makes a pretty good story. In this vibrant production, it still makes a pretty good play.
[For the record: An earlier version of this review had the incorrect name for the sound designer.]