“To hell with the Chinese earthquake!” Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), editor in chief of the Chicago Examiner, barks over the phone to his long-suffering city editor. “I don’t care if there’s a million dead!” Walter, the stop-at-nothing media monster who supplies the radioactive energy at the core of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 comedy, The Front Page, is sitting on a very big story, and whatever was supposed to go on the front page of the morning edition will have to make way for it; even the cheesecake photographs of Miss America must go. Apart from the hot news Burns and his star reporter, Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), are about to break, nothing can stay on the front page but “the rooster story,” because “that’s human interest!”
Roosters, real or metaphorical, are very much the focus of human interest in the comically warped and wincingly accurate world of The Front Page. It’s an utterly male-dominated world, in which women are scoffed at, alibied to, insulted, teased, manhandled, and in one shocking case even driven to suicide. Nobody pauses long enough to shed tears of compassion. The scene is the press room of Chicago’s Criminal Court Building, and the men in it mostly police reporters in ferocious competition to get the next big story, whatever it may be.
In this world, Hildy — life of the party, champion scoop-snatcher, and most reckless of risk-takers — is very much the cock of the walk. Or at least he would be if he weren’t giving it all up to get married. An evening train to New York awaits, along with his fiancée, Peggy (Halley Feiffer), her persnickety mother (Holland Taylor), and a dull, comfy, soul-killing job at an ad agency. He’s just dropped in to say goodbye. The rest of the boys are on deathwatch, waiting to see if a reprieve from the governor will come through for Earl Williams (John Magaro), the convicted murderer whose hanging is scheduled for tomorrow morning.
Williams’s case is troublesome: A self-proclaimed anarchist who has apparently shot “a colored policeman” (the original script uses the N word), he’s apparently schizophrenic and should probably be in a mental ward rather than the death cell. But the crooked mayor (Dann Florek) and the even crookeder but far dumber sheriff (John Goodman) are both up for re-election, and the African-American vote must be considered. So they’ve cooked up a phony “red scare,” blaming the murder on a nonexistent Bolshevik conspiracy to which Williams allegedly belongs. Nobody believes him innocent except Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott), with whom he spent an evening pouring his heart out. But prostitutes make very bad character witnesses, and Williams doesn’t help his case by committing another, seemingly unintentional murder (offstage) in the course of the action.
So there’s no moral base underlying the play. With a few very minor exceptions, everyone we see onstage is either cynical and corrupt or, like Hildy’s fiancée and her mother, hidebound by a respectability so conventional that it constitutes a kind of corruption itself. Walter and Hildy, whom we watch committing all kinds of outrageous acts in their effort to keep the big story to themselves, are no less crooked than the mayor and the sheriff, and are out for the same thing: power. If their paper can expose the way the incumbents have screwed up the Williams case, Walter tells Hildy, “You and I will own this town.” We like them better than the crooks currently in power because they’re not mealy-mouthed hypocrites about it, and because they’re cleverer — both verbally and in maneuvering out of a tight spot — than the lunkheads they oppose.
The moral equivocation makes The Front Page a tricky piece to stage. Its writing is constantly funny, a nearly nonstop barrage of jokes and smart-aleck retorts. But its gritty, fact-facing realism gives the humor a consistently bitter aftertaste, which the more extreme moments can turn to queasiness. That the comic foolery continues, almost without letup, after a gruesome incident involving Mollie Malloy, was in a sense Hecht and MacArthur’s point, but it’s a hard point for many audiences to swallow. And while the play’s second half centers on the joy Walter and Hildy take in working together to outwit their yo-yo opponents, the awareness that their camaraderie will culminate in an epic act of betrayal doesn’t exactly encourage free and happy laughter.
So balancing The Front Page‘s dark reality with its giddy fun is by no means easy, and Jack O’Brien’s revival navigates somewhat nervously between the two elements. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is somberly realistic for the first two acts, and the reporters, mostly clustering upstage on Douglas W. Schmidt’s set, seem interchangeable. (In Act Three, when the lighting inexplicably bumps up brighter, the laughs flow much more freely.) O’Brien’s cast seems to have been directed to aim for the real, conveying the sense that its comic zest has been dampened a little; the moments of extravagance or eccentricity that allow the rapid-fire dialogue to breathe have been squeezed out.
Slattery, a skillful, sexy, high-energy actor, is one of several performers cast in key roles who aren’t innately comedians; he falls slightly short of Hildy’s freewheeling flamboyance. (You’ll see what I mean if you watch any pre-Code movie starring Lee Tracy, who went straight to Hollywood after creating the role of Hildy on Broadway in 1928.) Among the few actors who escape the direction’s dampening effect are Goodman as the numbskull sheriff and Jefferson Mays as Bensinger, the haughty, hypochondriac Chicago Tribune reporter whose rolltop desk — as antiquated as his hokey writing and his paper’s notoriously right-wing views — becomes a key position in the play’s unfolding action.
And then there’s Lane. He has all the advantages — the funniest lines, the brightest lighting, one of costumer Ann Roth’s more distinctive outfits, and a director who’s apparently either shaped the scenes painstakingly with him or set him happily free to do as he likes. All of which would count for little if Lane didn’t also have the authority, the charisma, and the comic skill to ping home every sly word and make every gag hit dead center, like a champion dart player. That he makes it all look so easy is an extra scoop of ice cream on this exceptionally bittersweet confection.
The Front Page
235 West 44th Street
Through January 29, 2017