Greeted with Broadway hosannas in 1928, The Front Page has had innumerable incarnations both theatrically and on film. The amusing story centers on 1920s tabloid journalism, a field in which authors Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur had muddily labored. It crackles (or should) with colloquial dialogue and newspaper specifics as delivered by a motley crew of fed up reporters, blithely corrupt politicians, and an ambitious, single-minded chief who’d sell his mother for a story. Sight gags and vaudeville turns generally abound without quite regressing into the stupid. When it works, the play feels like a precursor to something by Aaron Sorkin, a peopled pinball machine.
John Goodman and The Company
Hildy Johnson (John Slattery – too slight, too patrician), star reporter on The Chicago Herald- Examiner, has quit the business to get married and lead a ‘normal’ life. He plans to take a train to New York that evening with fiancé Peggy Grant (a colorless Halley Feiffer) and her hanger-on mother (Holland Taylor, oddly restrained) where an advertising job waits at the enormous sum of $150 a week. Hildy’s boss, monomaniacal frenemy, Walter Burns (Nathan Lane, whom we don’t see till Act II, whereupon he executes every bit of Lane shtick with which you’re comfortably familiar), has no intention of letting him go.
Nathan Lane and John Goodman
Unable to resist saying goodbye and perhaps rubbing in his good fortune, Hildy shows up (drunk) in the Press Room of the local courthouse where representatives from all the papers are waiting to cover the hanging of Earl Williams (an excellent, rabbit-in-gun-sights John Magaro). Billed by politicians as a Red/Communist “I’m an anarchist”, Williams (accidentally) killed a cop.
With elections imminent, so-called justice was all the more swift. Both Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman, who has moments) and The Mayor (Dann Florek in a thankless role) will do anything to expedite the execution. Just how far they’ll go becomes clear when Pincus, a schlubby messenger from the Governor’s office, unexpectedly shows up. (Robert Morse in adroit cameo.)
Of course, Hildy never gets out of the building. Williams makes a break for it and serendipitously ends up in the reporter’s lap. How could any newspaperman worth his salt walk out on the story of the year?! Keeping his feature exclusive and the prisoner under wraps provides the comic core of the last part of the play which picks up momentum after this.
The ensemble of reporters is comprised of reliable character actors, a fine, symbiotic group with good faces. Watching Act I, where endless, entirely credible exposition may find you dozing if you’ve had a drink with dinner, is like being a voyeur.
Micah Stock as Woodenshoes Eichhorn, a Sweedish policeman with an amateur interest in criminology and the dazed look of having fallen on his head as a child, is consistently droll.
To my mind, the call-out of the show has to be Jefferson Mays’s fabulously intricate portrayal of the Tribune reporter, Bensinger. The actor has developed prissy physical attributes to illuminate being high strung/defensively scrappy, tender, and germ phobic. He inhabits Bensinger with exactitude and relish. Mays’s moment (and, in fact, one of Lane’s best) comes when Burns butters up the hapless drone, offering a fake job to get him out of the room where Williams is hiding. Recitation of Bensinger’s latest poem is perfection, but when Mays is hustled across the front of the stage in seemingly erratic, balletic imbalance, leading to a masterful altercation with his open umbrella and the doorway, I challenge you not to burst with appreciative pleasure.
Anticipation for this production was high. Cast and creatives alike seem skilled, yet the sum of its parts is not what it might be, leaving one disappointed.
Director Jack O’Brien makes deft, painterly pictures with the large cast, but spends less time with particulars of characters that too often seem ill defined. Flash bulb lights at the top of each act are inspired.
Set Design by Douglas Schmidt is so meticulous and evocative, one senses where the floor might be sticky, papers dusty, towels stained. The pivotal window (and what lays beyond it) is beautifully executed for multipurpose roles.
Ann Roth (Costume Design) has once again placed us in geography, class, profession, and time like an aesthetic alchemist.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: John Slattery and Nathan Lane
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s
The Front Page
Directed by Jack O’Brien
235 West 44th Street
Five years ago, Director Bartlett Sher introduced Norwegian sociologist Terje-Rod Larsen to playwright J.T. Rogers. Larsen shared a little known backstory of the 1993 Oslo peace accord with the author who, it seems, had long wanted to write about the Israelis and Palestinians. A revealing history describing the secret involvement of Norway, unofficial representatives from both sides and, in particular, his wife, diplomat Mona Juul (then an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry) and himself (at the time director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences) provides the basis for this riveting play. Though Rogers later interviewed the couple in depth, he stayed away from other survivors preferring to put his own stamp on participants.
Jennifer Ehle, Jefferson Mays
Like Stephen Sondheim’s song “Someone in a Tree” (Pacific Overtures) or Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, Rogers embroiders on what he was told, filling in that which couldn’t be observed. He also admittedly sexed up the characters, making them younger, combining and omitting for dramatic purposes. The implausible-but-true facts are, however, front and center with much of what the author deems “crazy” notably accurate.
In the course of three acts (with two intermissions), we’re made to feel like voyeurs, flies on the wall of a volatile narrative peppered with unexpected comedy emerging when historical enemies let their hair down. There are even jokes and sharp parodies of political figures that emerge when historical enemies let their hair down. Partly narrated by smart, level-headed Mona with wry asides to us, the story illuminates a roster of galvanizing players. It’s not necessary to know the accord’s public history, though some knowledge concerning both sides’ contentions would help.
Daniel Oreskes, Anthony Azizi, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani
The first act opens and closes on a dinner party at which Terje (Jefferson Mays) and Mona (Jennifer Ehle) intend to inform incipient Norwegian Prime Minister Johan Jorgan Host (T. Ryder Smith) and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell) of about 9 months of clandestine meetings they’ve been facilitating between the P.L.O. and Israelis. The initially congenial evening is interrupted by two calls on side by side telephones, one from Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), the other from a P.L.O. representative.
Meeting participants include: fox-like P.L.O. Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi) and unruly Marxist Palestinian, Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani) on one side of the table and wary, economic academics Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins) – sent first so as not to involve the actual government on the other. The Israelis are later joined i.e. “upgraded” to tenacious Washington lawyer Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo) and cabinet member Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) who climbs out a Paris hotel window to secretly make his way to meetings, “because as we all know,” Mona dryly comments, “every mid-level Israeli diplomat is a rock star in Norway.”
Daniel Oreskes, Daniel Jenkins, Jefferson Mays, Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani
Nor has Terje and Mona’s relationship been depicted as cardboard background. The sociologist is clearly drawn as wildcard instigator and driving force while his highly esteemed wife navigates diplomacy and keeps him at least in sight of protocol. “Take one more step forward,” she vehemently warns as they observe Qurie and Savir, “and I’ll divorce you.”
Acts Two and Three take us through the machinations/demands of the two factions both of whom risk international sanctions. Precautions are taken, but breached. Though we finally meet Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), Arafat and Rabin never appear. Being aware of the outcome, does nothing to hinder absorption.
Every man is objectively depicted, his work and private selves played with specificity. As 60 years of habitual hatred and mistrust come to fore, remarks are condescending, insults searing, yet passions can turn on a dime.
When Savir describes his time in New York, it’s like watching an infectiously enthusiastic teenager. His parody of “asshole” Henry Kissinger verges on incendiary, yet ends in laughter. Fathers are remembered, daughter’s names shared, lots and lots of Johnny Walker Black imbibed. (The future film company will no doubt be paid for placement.)
Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, Joseph Siravo, background-Angela Pierce
Though, as we know, the center didn’t hold, what was attempted was remarkable in its approach, risk, and reward. This is an eminently human saga of uplifting compromise where none seemed the least bit possible. Our obstructive Republican Congress, among others, might learn something.
Ensemble work is superb. Jefferson Mays’ rabbitty alertness and nuanced reaction to setbacks, Michael Aronov’s energy and theatricality and Jennifer Ehle’s preternatural, decidedly feminine equanimity add immeasurably. Angela Pierce is charming as the appreciated cook who, Hassan declares, “is to food what Vladimir Lenin is to land reform.”
Director Barlett Sher creates memorable stage images – allowing all three sections of audience sightline, enhances character with physicality, and paces the mercurial stop/start piece masterfully.
Michael Yeargan’s fluid set works in tandem with evocative Projections by 59Projections and Lighting by Donald Holder- love the snow!
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening: Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays, Anthony Azizi
Oslo by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Through August 28, 2016
The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
Reopens at The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center on March 23, 2017