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THEATER REVIEW: La Jolla Playhouse’s “His Girl Friday”

What a quaint picture: a makeshift press room with a large table of male print reporters shooting the fat, playing poker and waiting for the big execution to happen so they can call in their stories to the rewrite desk.

Those were fast-talking, wisecracking times with very few women and no computers or cell phones, inhabited by writers who never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

It’s “His Girl Friday,” John Guare’s rewrite of a remake of the source material – Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play “The Front Page,” playing through June 30 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre.

Into this sea of testosterone comes Hildy Johnson (Jenn Lyon), former ace reporter for “The Record,” who quit a few months ago and now returns to wave goodbye to her old pals before she goes off to marry her financially secure but dull fiancé Bruce (Donald Sage Mackay) and move to Albany.

Hildy is not just an anomaly for her time, she’s a firecracker and the best writer in the room, and when “Record” editor (and former husband) Walter Burns (Douglas Sills) gets wind that she’s in town, he mounts a campaign to lure her back to the newsroom by offering her the plum execution story.

When the condemned man escapes and ends up in the press room, Hildy is in position for the scoop – if she can keep the corrupt Sheriff (William Hill) and her colleagues away long enough.

The original story is really a comedy about the tabloid journalism business. The film remake (“His Girl Friday”) made it a screwball comedy. Guare has moved the time from the 1920s to 1939 – in fact, the very day Germany manufactured a reason to invade Poland, and made the condemned man a Jewish anarchist.

This allows him to toss in comments about U.S. isolationism, and to expose American antisemitism anti-immigrant attitudes, though how that helps this story escapes this reviewer. The evident male chauvinism and the search for the best (if not necessarily the most accurate) story seem adequate plot threads.

“His Girl Friday” sports a terrific Robert Brill set and a large cast of fine actors. Sills and Lyon play well off each other (their verbal fireworks are the heart of the play), and the other reporters (played by James Saba, Mike Sears, Dale Morris, Evan D’Angeles and Victor Morris and Matt McGrath) are all excellent as well.

Several other local actors also do a fine job: Mary Beth Peil as Bruce’s crotchety mom, Jonathan McMurtry as a befuddled chaplain, Steve Gunderson as a courier and Kevin Koppman-Gue as an obit writer.

The drawbacks here are in the rapid-fire dialogue – which was a bit too rapid on opening night – and the script, which Guare seems to have muddled rather than enhanced.

Some things are best left the way we found them. “His Girl Friday” falls into that category.

The details

“His Girl Friday” plays through June 30 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.