Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
June 14, 2013
Humor is in the eye of the beholder. Two shows display their wit with gusto. It all depends whether you’re a fan of hard-boiled, fast-talking noir or over-the-top drag.
In the noir column, there’s the slick La Jolla Playhouse production of “His Girl Friday,” adapted by award-winning playwright John Guare from the film classic of the same name, which was, in turn, an adaptation of the 1928 Ben Hecht/Charles McArthur stage classic, “The Front Page.” Guare’s been tweaking his revision for ten years. It still has a way to go.
La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley puts his energetic stamp on the piece, with the help of the Playhouse’s first designer-in-residence, Robert Brill, who has created a terrifically tawdry press room in the Chicago criminal courthouse, replete with smashable windows, standup phones and of course, standard typewriters. First, we meet those grungy, lazy, cheap, dishonest, card-playing denizens of the yellow journalism biz, whose rat-a-tat dialogue matches the click and tap of the keys. But they do grow tiresome, and they’re around for way too long, providing exposition.
Hecht and McArthur’s piece was a dark satire of the press and politicians. The movie made the whole affair a screwball comedy. In trying to achieve both, Guare’s effort falls doubly short.
The dialogue definitely crackles, especially between the fiery ex-spouses – ambitious, relentless crime reporter Hildy Johnson and her scheming, manipulative editor, Walter Burns. Douglas Sills and Jenn Lyon spar delightfully. And there are some delicious cameos from local actors, particularly Steve Gunderson and Kevin Koppman-Gue .
But re-setting the action in 1939, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland, and making the Big Story about a Jewish anarchist killing a Nazi-sympathizing cop, seems artificially cooked up. It’s hard to buy and hard to care.
At nearly three hours, the play is far too long. But thanks to the superb set, lighting and costumes, the look is sublime.
When it comes to set and costumes, you can’t go too wrong putting a play in a convent. Still, costumer Corey Johnston has a ball with flashbacks at Diversionary Theatre, when the Mother Superior in “The Divine Sister” was an ace reporter with a noirish colleague-boyfriend, not unlike “His Girl’s” Hildy Johnson.
The Chief Nun was famously played by the show’s creator, Charles Busch, beloved New York dragmeister . Daren Scott gives it his all, but he and the rest of the excellent cast are trapped in a convoluted plot of orphans and secrets and long-buried backstories. The goofy, zany comedy spoofs every nun-based movie ever written, which you might find diverting or tedious, depending on your perspective. Regrettably, I fall in the latter camp.
Two plays, two genres. You choose what kind of theater habit you want to get into.
“His Girl Friday” runs through June 30 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
‘The Divine Sister” also plays through June, at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
©2013 PAT LAUNER