As both Hecht and MacArthur were Chicago journalists before becoming famous playwrights and screenwriters, there is an air of authenticity about the play that only an insider would know. However, although there were most probably practical jokers among the press corps, the outrageous behavior of the journalists – one more eccentric than the next – is likely a gross exaggeration. But this is intended as a farcical comedy so the question does not arise. While the play is now 88 years old, the jokes about New York, Chicago and Washington, and political corruption still register. The biggest laugh comes when Slattery, late of Mad Men, announces that he is leaving journalism for advertising. The play has been trimmed a bit and updated for political correctness without any harm done to the original.
All of the action takes place in the dilapidated Press Room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts building. The tabloid reporters play cards and kibitz as they await the 7 AM hanging of supposed communist Earl Williams who has accidentally shot a black policeman. The hanging has been postponed twice by the Sheriff’s office, bringing it up to only three days before the next city election on a campaign of “Reform the Reds with a Rope.”
The Herald Examiner’s star reporter Hildy Johnson (Slattery) is missing from the group as he has quit the newspaper racket to get married, much to the fury of his boss, the legendary editor Walter Burns (Lane). Hildy arrives in order to say goodbye but gets the scoop of his life when Earl Williams (John Magaro) escapes and Walter twists his arm to follow the story while Hildy’s fiancée Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and her harridan of a mother (Taylor) wait impatiently down in a taxi. In typical, screwball style everything gets worse before it gets better and a happy ending is resolved, mostly for those who deserve it. If the plot seems familiar, it has been filmed by Hollywood four times with top stars.
Although we hear Lane’s screaming over the telephone in Act One, he does not appear in person until halfway through the second act and gives the too respectful production a much needed boost of adrenaline. Playing another one of his bigger than life roles of which he is a past master, he inhabits the amoral, cynical and monstrously manipulative editor who would destroy his own mother if it sold more papers. He roars, purrs, cajoles, lies, threatens, plots, running the gamut of human behaviors and demonstrating tremendous range. Once he is on stage, everything revolves around him.
Under O’Brien’s too staid direction, the cast varies in playing these colorful characters though on paper all seem perfectly cast. As his star reporter Hildy Johnson, Slattery is curiously bland, making him too much like a gentleman, rather than the gangster that Walter has turned him into. However, Slattery and Lane play well off of each other turning their encounters into almost a vaudeville routine. Goodman as the sheriff unaccountably played as a Southerner gets the dim-wittedness but misses the comedy as “Pinkie” Hartman (as the hacks have dubbed him) could be a lot funnier.
However, many in the cast make the most of their opportunities. Mays is hilarious as Bensinger, the professorial, hypochondriac, and germ phobic reporter for the Tribune who is obviously in the wrong profession. In the small role of the emissary from the governor’s office with a reprieve for Williams, Morse makes every moment count as he finds puny reasons not to take the bribe that the mayor offers. Taylor is fine as the frustrated and outraged mother-in-law-to-be, while Scott turns streetwalker Molly Malloy who has found a soft spot in her heart for Earl Williams into a tragic figure. Micah Stock turns the role of the dour German policeman Woodenshoes Eichhorn into a star turn. Among the many reporters who come and go throughout the play, Lewis J. Stadlen as wry, sour Endicott of the Post, and Dylan Baker as McCue of the City News Bureau who turns phone interviewing into a fine art stand out.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s set design interestingly skews the view of the Press Room by depicting one corner with the windows to the street and the glass wall to the hall. Ann Roth’s costumes are redolent of the late twenties period. The lighting of Brian MacDevitt subtly shifts as the evening grows later. Scott Lehrer’s sound design is an important part of the production with the offstage noise of the gallows being tested to the fire alarm which periodically goes off and the many telephones and overheard conversations.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page remains the quintessential comedy about the tabloid newspaper racket. Jack O’Brien’s production plays it safe while a more brazen and outrageous style might have obtained more laughs. The current revival with its many recognizable names and faces is still entertaining fun. And it does bring back to the Broadway stage the incomparable Nathan Lane in top form in an unforgettable role.
The Front Page (through January 29, 2017)
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thefrontpagebroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions