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