Since its conception as a stage play in 1928, “The Front Page” has spawned more editions than a Hearst tabloid — including four film adaptations. In attempting to find yet another way to crack this chestnut, John Guare takes an obvious cue from Howard Hawks’ classic 1940 film. Yet while Guare’s adaptation is a breezy, enjoyable entertainment in its own right, this “His Girl Friday” struggles mightily to live up to the memory of a movie that is for many the paragon of screwball romantic comedy.
Opening the Guthrie’s 10th season under artistic director Joe Dowling, who helms here, “His Girl Friday” is in many ways a production tailored to his sensibilities. This is a smooth, agreeable crowd-pleaser that favors rapid-fire repartee over any startling insight into journalism or political corruption, the play’s nominal subjects. Dowling is playing it safe here, obviously, but the anachronistic flavor lends the proceedings a certain second-hand charm.
Though based on both the Hawks film and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s newsroom farce, Guare’s adaptation seems to cleave closest to the Hollywood version. In the story’s original iteration, ace Chicago reporter Hildy Johnson was a man; here, as in the Hawks film, she is a woman and the ex-wife of mercurial editor Walter Burns (played in the film by Cary Grant). In fact, besides drawing a thin connection between the play’s burlesque of jingoistic politicians and the current state of world affairs, Guare seems to have made precious few alterations to the film’s screenplay.
The marquee stars of this production, film actors Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, also compete with memories of Hawks’ film. In the Rosalind Russell part, Bassett is all strut and sassy pout. Yet while Bassett cuts an impressive figure in a sleek red suit, her Hildy is more frazzled comedienne than tough-as-nails newswoman.
Vance’s Walter has a roguish swagger, too, but it’s no great knock to say that Vance is no Cary Grant.
Oddly, for actors married in real life, Bassett and Vance never generate the sort of chemistry that Russell and Grant did — the frisson of sexual tension that’s the key ingredient in this brand of romantic farce. Absent that, the two leads mug frantically, hoping, perhaps, to generate laughs through pure force of will.
Bassett and Vance can’t really be blamed if their performances misfire, however, since “His Girl Friday” as a whole comes off as a bit forced. Hawks’ original film had an effortless sophistication, as well as a wised-up, cynical wit. Dowling here replicates that exemplary comedy’s break-neck pacing and physical clowning, but he can’t quite match its tone. This “His Girl Friday” may be an affectionate nod to golden age Hollywood, but it’s also a museum piece — smart and polished, but showing its age.
Yet even if the play’s central romantic pairing fails to spark, there’s enough going on in the margins of this production to keep things moving. Kris L. Nelson, for instance, delivers a fine hangdog perf as an unjustly condemned anarchist (even if his accent does migrate from Eastern Europe to the Scottish highlands).
And the play’s pack of wise-cracking reporters fairly steal the show. This version treats these journalists — born raconteurs and closet romantics — with warm, knowing humor. Guare’s real venom is reserved for the enemies of the press: venal politicians and their handymen.
For the most part, the supporting perfs, along with a flurry of one-liners, are enough to keep “His Girl Friday” punching into the late rounds. Even without any great romantic friction from the leads, this is nevertheless a sharp homage to a Hollywood classic.