By Karen K. Isaacs
The Front Page is one of those classic comedies that should be revived regularly especially when we are depressed or concerned about the future.
Currently it is getting a terrific production at the Broadhurst Theater with a cast that any director would die for.
Is it farce? Is it a “screwball comedy” as Hollywood referred to it? Who cares? It is just FUNNY.
This comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur has a long history. (The two also wrote the classic Twentieth Century). The play was produced in 1928 and went on to four successful film adaptations: including Front Page and His Gal Friday which changed the gender of the reporter Hildy Johnson. Both Hecht and MacArthur drew on their Chicago newspaper experience for the play.
The play is set in the city hall press room where the police reporters and others hang out while waiting for the next hot story. This night they are awaiting the execution of Earl Williams, a supposed Communist who shot a black police officer. Time is heavy on their hands as they play cards, take and place calls and await a possible reprieve. Soon Hildy Johnson arrives – his editor has been calling the news room multiple times. Hildy is a tough, terrific reporter who is about to commit the ultimate “sin’ – he is getting married, moving to NYC and abandoning the newspaper business for advertising. Hildy has been out drinking prior to catching the train with his fiancé and her mother.
Act one helps establish the multiple characters and their personalities including Hildy, the other reporters, the cleaning lady (Jenny), Mollie Malloy (the “good time girl” who loves Earl and believes him innocent), Woodenshoes Eichhorn (the somewhat strange cop that visits) as well as the sheriff and others. But soon all Hell breaks loose as Williams escapes.
From there the action gets fast and furious. The sheriff and the mayor are frantic to find Williams (there is an election in a few days) and wouldn’t mind if Williams was killed during the capture. Hildy’s fiancé and her mother come looking for him, a representative from the governor’s office arrives with a reprieve to the consternation of the mayor and the sheriff, and Hildy’s editor (Walter Burns) arrives.
I don’t want to give all the complications away, but let’s just say that a perfectly respectable older woman is “kidnapped,” Hildy and Walter get arrested, and there’s a body in the roll-top desk.
Director Jack O’Brien has assembled an outstanding cast and then kept them moving at a brisk pace. What makes this production so enjoyable is that each of the performers creates a fully developed character even if it is a relatively minor role. That helps differentiate the many men in the show who could easily blur together in the hands of less experienced performers.
Take Robert Morse for instance. He plays the governor’s representative delivering the reprieve. He has two short scenes but by the time they are over, you know this man. You know his character and his life. Morse makes him believable and also funny.
I could mention almost everyone in the cast – from Patricia Connolly as the cleaning lady Jennie, to Dann Florek as the Mayor, John Macaro as Earl Williams and Sherie Rene Scott as Mollie. Lewis J. Stadlin, David Pittu, Dylan Baker, Christopher McDonald, Joey Slotnick give each of the reporters distinct personalities. Micah Stock is hilarious as the earnest if misguided police officer who goes in and out of the press room giving his psychological interpretations.
But that leads us to the larger roles. If there is a star role – meaning someone who is on stage the most – it is John Slattery as Hildy Johnson. He is terrific as the reporter who believes he intends to give it all up but just can’t resist the lure of a good story. Even when we suspect from the beginning what will happen, Slattery keeps us on edge.
John Goodman plays the sheriff who is determined to make sure that Williams is executed to ensure the black vote in the upcoming election. The sheriff is a little dense, but Goodman gives him a goofy intensity.
Nathan Lane may be the first listed on the marquee, but his character, the editor Walter Burns does not appear until well into the play. When he does appear, it is as if a cyclone has hit the stage. He never stops moving.
Holland Taylor as Hildy’s future mother-in-law portrays the proper woman who is horrified at the world she sees in the press room, the prospect of Hildy as her son-in-law, and the indignities to which she is subjected.
If anyone steals the show, it is Jefferson Mays as Bensinger, the reporter for the Tribune. Bensinger does not fit into the rough and tumble of the press room; he is a germophobic, nattily attired and precise in his manner. Mays not only gets all the laughs that are built into the role, but some that aren’t. He also gives us a sympathetic character that you feel sorry for when Walter Burns takes advantage of him.
Act one because of the need for the set up does not have the riotous laughs that acts two and three provide. They are worth waiting for.
Douglas W. Schmidt has created the press room office replete with multiple old telephones, girly magazine covers on the door to the lavatory and more. Ann Roth’s costume designs create the late 1920s. I appreciated the lighting by Brian MacDevitt; O’Brien has some episodes end with a freeze frame and the flash of an old-fashioned camera flashgun. It is both effective and appropriate. Scott Lehrer’s sound design creates the outside street including the testing of the gallows.
Front Page is at the Broadhurst Threater, 235 W. 44th Streert through Feb. 5. For tickets contact Telecharge.