The Front Page
by Elizabeth Ahlfors
John Slattery as Hildy Johnson and Nathan Lane as Walter Burns in The Front Page.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Long before cell phones and TV breaking news was the corner newsboy shouting "Extra, extra! Read all about it!" It was an era that director Jack O' Brian celebrates in The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, two ex-newsman who knew the game and how to write about it.
At Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, in a dingy, overcrowded press room with a background of street noises and a grizzly bunch of newsman eyeing a scoop, the plot starts off with the wind at its back. It's rapid fire from then on. The original show opened in 1928 and was revived on stage and film several times, including a memorable pairing of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In three acts, O'Brian creatively stages the show, flash-freezing the beginning and end of each scene and lending it a photographic nostalgia. Capturing the feeling of the era is a championship cast of two dozen, many familiar to audiences from stage and TV screen.
In the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, reporters are killing time in the press room waiting to cover the scheduled hanging of a convicted cop killer/anarchist, Earl Williams (John Magaro). John Slattery, recognized as Roger Sterling in TV's Mad Men, plays the Herald-Examiner's star reporter, Hildy Johnson, cool, ambitious and charismatic. Engaged to a rich young woman, he is planning to leave the Chicago news game for an advertising job in New York, but not if his boss, editor Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), has anything to say about it. Burns will do anything to bar Johnson's move and keep him in Chicago. In this scheming tug of war, an unexpected breaking news story ups the ante.
Shrewdly, Lane's presence is first sensed only via his brusque editorial phone conversations with Johnson. It is not until the second act that he finally appears in the news room and from then on, The Front Page belongs to Nathan Lane. The reporter-and-editor relationship is taut with a blueprint slickly kept aloft by two crackerjack actors, Lane and Slattery. As Slattery hankers for the scoop, we see that his character's gradual determination to leave the news business is waning. Lane, with wily timing and peerless delivery, ruthlessly and hilariously finesses for the upper hand.
The eminent supporting roles are no minor addition to this gang. Jefferson Mays (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) as Bensinger, squeezes the juice from a hypochondriac's antiseptic spray war against germs. To further define the character, set designer Douglas W. Schmidt placed posters over Bensinger's roll-top desk warning of diphtheria and whooping cough.
Showing the political dark side of Chicago, John Goodman (Big River) plays the brash, lummox Sheriff Hartman and Dan
Florek ( Law and Order) is a sleazy Mayor. Kudos also go to Lewis J. Stadlen, Dylan Baker, David Pittu, Clark Thorell, Christopher McDonald and Micah Stock. Another Mad Men alumnus, Robert Morse, is featured as Mr. Pincus, a meek messenger sent by the Governor. He appears seemingly easy to hoodwink but Pincus eventually saves the day.
One of the few women cast is Sherie Rene Scott as the tender hearted hooker, Mollie Malloy, whose heart is especially soft for the prisoner. Hildy Johnson's fiance, Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer), is determined to marry Johnson and whisk him to New York and away from this rowdy workplace. Holland Taylor shows her versatility as Peggy's comically fierce mother. For this performance, Pippa Pearthree steps in as the rueful cleaning lady, Jenny.
Ann Roth provides era-appropriate costumes for everyone, notably creased fedoras for the shabbily dressed men and perky hats for the high society Grant women.
Back in the '20's, they say, journalism was a trade, a rat race in print, and not some slicked-up profession on a glossy TV screen. That may be, but Hecht and MacArthur's classic, The Front Page, is certainly fun watching as Jack O'Brien's grade-A cast demonstrates just what real professionalism is all about.
The Front Page
By Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Directed: Jack O'Brien
Producer: Scott Rudin
Previews: Sept. 20, 2016. Opens Oct. 20, 2016. Closes Feb. 5, 2017.
235 West 44th Street
Running time: Two hours. 30 minutes. Two intermissions
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors, November 2016