Good things come in threes, it seems, though audiences attending the National Theater preem of “His Girl Friday” might well argue otherwise, given the delicious sparks thrown off throughout the evening by the play’s central pair, Alex Jennings and Zoe Wanamaker. Drawn from the 1939 Columbia Pictures film of the same name that was itself inspired by the enduringly crusty 1928 play “The Front Page,” John Guare’s adaptation of “His Girl Friday” holds its own and then some against some honorable forbears, and Jack O’Brien’s affectionate slow burn of a staging — the second in National a.d. Nicholas Hytner’s Travelex £10 season — does the rest. (O’Brien opened the play in London 72 hours before copping his Tony for “Hairspray,” the director’s first.)
You get the snap, crackle and fizz of the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell movie, along with the greater texture and sense of place of the original Hecht-MacArthur play. But the abiding bonus this time around is an appeal to that bodily organ, the heart, that the machine-gun repartee (“Take Hitler and stick him on the funny pages”) often has bypassed before.
Not here: Jennings’ supremely wry Walter Burns may dismiss a first-act reference to “the education of the heart” as the landscape of a Miss Lonelyhearts column. And yet, something in the actor’s verbal cut-and-thrust lets you see the limitations of slinging wisecracks alone. Wanamaker’s Hildy doesn’t just make this Walter a fuller person; she makes him funnier, too. After all, why should Walter acknowledge the burgeoning war abroad (the play is set during Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which might as well be happening on another planet) when he’s so busy relishing the sex war close to home?
The result grants surprising emotional robustness to what could have been a mere pastiche — an exercise in the cobbling together of various sources that survives an ominously unfunny first 15 minutes to build and build until an entire auditorium can be felt wanting newspaper editor Walter to win back ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy. And for the “doll-faced mug” Hildy — Wanamaker, dressed in Roz Russell-style stripes by Bob Crowley, lives up to the description, somehow managing even to type sexily — to get her story. And her man.
At the start, you’ll remember, Hildy simply wants out: She has come to the press room of the Windy City’s Criminal Courts building to bid one last farewell. With hapless if well-intentioned fiance Bruce in tow (Richard Lintern couldn’t be more winningly earnest in Ralph Bellamy’s screen role as the bumpkin who used to trust people “until I came to Chicago”), Hildy regards the newsroom as her “wicked past,” only to discover that some vices mustn’t be sloughed off. How exciting is a prospective insurance-salesman hubby who drinks milk, compared with the adrenaline rush of the scoop?
Before long, Hildy is discovering what Amanda in the thematically near-identical “Private Lives” — a play that began the same decade that “His Girl Friday” ends — must also learn for herself: Divorce leads certain couples back to the beginning, provided that the so-called “easy” life they have separately envisioned is deadlier and duller than the sparring that went before. (“Rome is burning,” snaps Hildy, pressed back onto her old beat, “and I have to run into Nero.”)
That central matching of wits proves the occasion here, though O’Brien, no stranger to big stages, has a high old time filling in the periphery of a corruption-filled landscape given over to political chicanery, barking newshounds (aka, in the parlance of the play, “inkrats”), and a putative mother-in-law in deliriously high dudgeon. In that last role, reprising much the same harridan mother from hell that she played last year in the NT’s “Tartuffe,” a heavily furred and furious Margaret Tyzack gets the comic equivalent of a musical 11 o’clock showstopper with a litany of rage at the expense of women writers, which marks one of Guare’s most outlandish additions to the extant material. (Another, though no doubt emblematic of the milieu, is the four-letter word that brings down the first act.) Occasionally, the production is a bit too busy for its own good, just as Crowley’s multipurpose single set — in distinct contrast to the movie’s numerous locations — may be offputtingly fussy to those who don’t immediately clock the visual replication of the black-and-white soundstage for the movie. But this version is the first I’ve seen, the Billy Wilder film from the 1970s included, to treat the doomed prostitute Mollie Malloy (Nicola Stephenson) as more than a shrill low-lifer, the implication being that the Hecht-MacArthur characters are archetypes of a sort, yes, but worthy of genuine consideration, too.
That’s nowhere clearer than in one blissful moment between the leads when the badinage stops — what a Beatrice and Benedick this pair would make! — and Walter and Hildy seem to see each other afresh and fall silent, poised for a kiss.
But the romance in “His Girl Friday” will have to wait until the presses have rolled in an adaptation that leaves the door wide open for a sequel. Far more urgent is the thrill of the journalistic chase, and the comic chaos (the set features the requisite slamming doors) that ensues. How would the luckless Bruce characterize his battle-axe of a mother? “Motherly,” he says. Jennings’ Walter gives a crisp, pulse-quickening smile: “You made her come alive.”