The Broadway adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play The Front Page is an interesting production. The plot concerns newspaper men waiting to scoop each other, on the hanging of a white anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro) accused of killing a black policeman. It is politically incorrect, sexist and written with a good ol boys club mentality. Its gets laughs, (granted most don’t come until the second act when Nathan Lane shows up) and thank-God not one person is changing it’s text, attitude or making it politically correct. For that alone it is refreshing, in this tabloid mentality, that forgets we have a history, be it good or bad.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s set stands out with it’s perfect it’s ink-stains, roll toped desk and windows that shatter. It is gritty, lived in and present. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt and the costumes by Ann Roth also stand out and we are transported to 1928 Chicago.
The first act has an array of fabulous character actors Lewis J. Stadlen (Endicott, Post), David Pittu (Schwartz, Daily News), Christopher McDonald (Murphy, Journal), Joey Slotnick (Wilson, American), Dylan Baker (McCue, City New Bureau), and Clarke Thorell (Kruger, Journal of Commerce). Mr. Baker does get laughs and has created a memorable character, but like I have been saying the ensemble just doesn’t click and the chemistry keeps act one at snail pace. Even with the addition of Jefferson Mays as Bensingera from the Tribune is a germ-a-phobic hypochondriac much along the lines of “Monk,” nothing quite sparks. Micah Stock who blew everybody away in It’s Only A Play again stands out, but by doing a very strange German accent as Woodenshoes Eichahorn. I’m still undecided if it works or not. We hear Lane in the first act but it isn’t Lane appears as Walter Burns, editor of the Herald-Examiner, that the laughs roll and the show picks up its pace. It is almost like Lane is the ringmaster.
The play concerns two plots that of the fate of Earl Williams and Hildy Johnson, the most charismatic journalist and the one who scoops most of the stories played by Mad Men‘s John Slattery. He is leaving to get married to Peggy (Halley Feiffer), move to New York and get the hell away from Burns. Burns however does not want to lose his star reporter. When Earl escapes the chase is on. There is no sense of decline in The Front Page, just of an unfettered media able and willing to exploit any human misery and extremity for headlines and copy. There is corruption, with the mayor (Dann Florek) who is conspiring with Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) to have Williams executed, in order to grab the black votes. Ironically there are no black characters. When Pincus (Mad Man and Tony Award winner for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Robert Morse), enters with a repreve the show becomes fun and madcap. Hildy’s fiancee’s mother (Holland Taylor), gets kidnapped and the prostitute Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott) who testified for Earl is driven to despair.
Baker, Taylor, Mayes all have stand out moments. Robert Morse is so good I didn’t even realize it was him until the curtain call. Really well done. Slattery and Goodman are fine, but it is Nathan Lane who is back on Broadway and owning it.
Jack O’Brien does an extremely effective photo flash before and after each scene that is Vogue worthy. He directs this piece with love and and affection to the era.
The Front Page may just be the last reminder of our 1st amendment rights and a time when newspapers ruled. I was filled with nostalgia and a sense of the times as the themes of journalism under siege, hostile candidates and those who back them try to prevent justice and the right to know. It was nice to escape to a simpler time when corruption was blatant and we could laugh without being condemned.
The Front Page:Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th St. close Jan. 29th.