With the media’s popularity currently at an all-time low, it seems like a fitting time to dust off Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s cynical 1928 newspaper comedy, The Front Page. Not because it will improve anyone’s opinion of the Fourth Estate, but because it will reinforce it with a wicked dose of scalpel-sharp satire.
Set in Chicago in the ‘20s — when corruption flowed as freely as bathtub gin whether in City Hall or on the City Desk – this star-studded edition of the play is presented in three acts and, to use a bit of journalist lingo, it makes the cardinal sin of burying the lead. Directed by Tony-winner Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Hairspray), the first act is both over-long and too broad. It’s flat where it should be fizzy. Mad Men’s John Slattery stars as Hildy Johnson, the sozzled, adrenalin-junkie star reporter for the Examiner. He’s a rumpled cynic who has no problem digging into his wallet to get a sensational scoop. Unfortunately, Slattery feels a little too lightweight in the part. He doesn’t convincingly give off the calculating smarts and socko charisma the character should.
As the curtain opens on the first act, Hildy’s fellow layabout reporters (which include Dylan Baker, Christopher McDonald, and a very good Jefferson Mays as the resident germaphobe pill) are sitting around the press room at the local criminal courts building playing cards, smoking cigars, and slinging bull about the story they’re all waiting to cover. A dizzy anarchist named Earl Williams (John Magaro) is awaiting the hangman’s noose. Despite sketchy evidence, he’s been accused of killing a “colored” police officer (“colored” is a sanitized update to the word Hecht and MacArthur originally used). The sheriff (John Goodman, growling and overdoing it so mightily you fear he might pull a hernia) and the mayor (Dann Florek) are itching to let Williams dangle because they need to curry favor with minority voters at the polls.
Like Howard Hawks’ screwball Hollywood classic, 1940’s His Girl Friday (which was based on Hecht and MacArthur’s play), the dialogue is rat-a-tat paced and peppered with the profane argot of the newsroom. The biggest laughs out of the gate come from Micah Stock’s heavily German-accented cop, Woodenshoes Eichorn. And they’re needed, because it isn’t until halfway through the nearly three-hour running time when Nathan Lane (as Hildy’s blowhard editor, Walter Burns) finally makes his entrance that the show catches fire. Barking arias of sarcastic, arsenic-laced insults, Lane is like a human defibrillator whose presence single-handedly puts the production back on course.
The story pivots around Hildy’s dilemma of whether to give up the profession that runs in his blood like printer’s ink or ditch the grubby glamor and rush of deadlines to move to New York City with his fiancée (Halley Feiffer) and take a respectable job in advertising (which gets a laugh considering Slattery’s prior gig on Mad Men). The conundrum solves itself when the condemned prisoner escapes and Hildy hides him away long enough to bang out the exclusive on his typewriter.
With a terrific set by Douglas W. Schmidt (you can virtually smell the stale ashtrays and cold coffee) and a cast that also includes Holland Taylor (as Hildy’s future mother-in-law) and Slattery’s former Mad Men costar Robert Morse (as an addled messenger with a last-minute reprieve from the governor), The Front Page is without a doubt one of the Broadway season’s more star-heavy attractions. But you’ll have to be patient waiting for Lane to arrive to really enjoy it. It’s considered a classic for a reason. It’s smart, subversive, and seemingly timeless. Too bad that this time around it’s also an ensemble comedy that feels like a one-man show. B