'His Girl Friday' at Hedgerow: Fast talk, fast pace

Graft a screwball comedy onto an old-fashioned valentine to rough-and-ready newspapering, and you get His Girl Friday, the 1940 Howard Hawks film starring the scintillating duo of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Now the film is a frothy stage play, with a Hedgerow Theatre Company ensemble of just six actors doing quick changes into a multiplicity of characters. Thanks to director Damon Bonetti’s breakneck pacing, the ace comic timing of Jared Reed as the sleazily charming editor Walter Burns and the cast’s overall versatility, this production is (mostly) a fine evening’s entertainment.

The Hawks film was based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 classic, The Front Page, a satirical paean to the hyper-competitive Chicago journalism of the era. The screenplay’s genius lay in transforming star reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman, and turning the hot-and-cold relationship with her Morning Post editor, Burns, into a romance – specifically, a comedy of remarriage.

But the film retained the underlying storyline of The Front Page, with its farcical mash-up of political corruption, criminal haplessness and journalistic ruthlessness in pursuit of the ever-elusive, adrenaline-inciting scoop. So does this faithful stage adaptation (not the first – John Guare’s also attempted the feat). This one is credited to Reed, Hedgerow’s producing artistic director, and Bonetti, and its numerous short scenes, punctuated by James P. Lewis’s blackout lighting, keep the action hurtling forward.

One unresolved problem, Hedgerow’s gender-neutral casting notwithstanding, is a strain of misogyny in the original source material. In one hard-to-watch scene, a couple of heartless  reporters nastily taunt and even man-handle Mollie Malloy (Jennifer Summerfield), a woman with a sweet spot for the doomed cop killer Earl Williams. (By contrast, racial and ethnic references, including the electorally relevant happenstance that Williams’ victim was black, have been expunged.)

The Hildy Johnson-Walter Burns relationship is supposed to be a cage match of equals, with witty repartee papering over both grievance and a fundamental compatibility. (As Walter says early on, “We’ve got something nothing can change,” a point his ex-wife doesn’t dispute.) But this production is hobbled by a less than sure-footed performance by Jessica DalCanton as a stiff, perpetually grinning Hildy.

As the show opens, she announces to her ex-husband and former boss that she is swapping out newspapering for marriage to insurance man Bruce Baldwin and (a becalmed) life as a wife and mother in Albany. Worse yet, from Walter’s point of view, the wedding is set for the very next day – not much time for sabotage.

Fortunately, Walter has both few scruples and an uncanny ability to lure, trick or cajole just about everyone in his orbit into doing his bidding. He’s a likable lizard. Reed doesn’t have Cary Grant’s effortless charm (who does?), but he puts his own stamp on the role. When Earl Williams (an endearing Mark Swift) manages a jailbreak and ends up, even more improbably, in a roll-top desk in the courthouse pressroom, the farce plays out with rat-a-tat style.

The show’s other star is Altman, whose roles include the naïve insurance man, the corrupt sheriff and a buffoonish reporter from the much-despised Chicago Tribune. Costume designer Janus Stefanowicz’s nifty plaid suit for Hildy and double-breasted three-piece suits for most of the men evoke an era of informal banter and formal dress. Matthew Windham provides a simple, flexible set – a door, a window, that roll-top desk — whose backdrop is a romanticized big-city skyline.

THEATER

His Girl Friday

  • Through July 29 at the Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley. Tickets: $37. Information: 610-565-4211, hedgerowtheatre.org.