Susan Granger’s review of “The Front Page” (Broadhurst Theater, Oct., 2016)
Long before the demise of many daily newspapers, long before television, long before anyone even conceived of the Internet, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote this cynical comedy about muckraking reporters in a Press Room in Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building.
These whiskey-guzzling, cigar-smoking, misogynistic ruffians have assembled on the eve of a hanging that’s scheduled for 7 a.m. since Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) steadfastly refuses to push up the execution so they can make their newspaper’s morning edition.
“Not much you can do with a hanging,” one says ruefully. “Now if we had the electric chair in this state, that’s something you can sink your teeth into.”
Excitement arrives as escaped convict Earl Williams (John Magaro) crashes into the emptied press room, much to the delight of competitive Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), who hides the anarchist in a roll-top desk so he can phone in his ‘scoop’ in time to join his anxious fiancée (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) at the train to New York.
Although it’s self-consciously stretched to almost three hours, Jack O’Brien directs at a frenzied pace.
The play’s biggest laugh comes – not from the script – but when actor John Slattery from TV’s “Mad Men” voices Hildy’s determination to get out of newspaper reporting to get into something respectable, like advertising.
Although he has top billing, Nathan Lane doesn’t appear until late in the second act. He plays Hildy’s ruthless editor, Walter Burns – and, as always, his comic timing is impeccable.
I attended the matinee on Sunday, Oct. 30, when a medical emergency forced the farce’s third act to an abrupt halt for about 20 minutes so an audience member could be evacuated by ambulance. Judging by the general age around me, one imagines the victim may have been as old as the play.
Making its Broadway debut in 1928, starring Osgood Perkins (Tony’s father) & Lee Tracy, it was revived in 1969 with Robert Ryan, Helen Hayes, Dody Goodman & Peggy Cass and in 1986 with John Lithgow & Richard Thomas. It was also filmed several times – first with Pat O’Brien & Adolphe Menjou, then with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and again with Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau.
Kudos to Douglas W. Schmidt’s squalid set with its many candlestick telephones, capturing the sleazy tabloid ambiance, as do Ann Roth’s shabby suits. And the supporting cast includes Jefferson Mays, Robert Morse, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Sherie Rene Scott, Dylan Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, Patricia Conolly, and Dann Florek, among others.
If you’ve never seen it, perhaps you’ll find it funnier than I did. “The Front Page” has a limited engagement through January 29, 2017.