This three act comedy – The Front Page –by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, currently packing them in at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway, is the best revival ever from the day when Broadway was king, when plays were Plays, and going to the theatre was an event, a major night out on the town. Films ran 80 minutes or so and certainly had no intermission, radio was just beginning to be an important part of American evenings, television may have been conceived, but it wasn’t even born yet.
In 1928-29 when two giant hits followed each other, by these two ex-newsmen, (the other was Twentieth Century) the standards were high, the big comedy in three acts, were where the brass ring lived, and a list of major playwrights, from George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Edna Ferber, Sidney Kingsley, Chodorov and Fields, and other icons filled the New York stages with plays whose casts numbered 20 and more, all in three acts with two intervals, containing plots that twisted and turned, bringing merriment and mirth, and occasionally some insight and wisdom to the societal concerns of the day.
In the cast of The Front Page, the playwrights dashed off a love song to the press corps of the Chicago newspapers at a time when gangsters like Al Capone, and John Dillinger were literally getting away with murder. It is set in the press room of the newspaper at a time when one Earl Wiliams has been convicted of killing someone, and is about to be hanged. He’s been accused on circumstantial evidence and the hours are pounding down on him as he faces the end of life for a crime he swears he did not commit. There is a girl with an unsavory background who has befriended him, and she makes a supreme effort to be heard on his behalf, but no one cares, and he would seem to be doomed. One reporter, Hildy Johnson, tops in his field, has come to the press room to pick up his personal items, as he has quit and is about to leave town.
A sudden event propels him into postponing his departure in order to tackle just one last case as his swan song. Then he can leave town, marry his girl and begin a more sane existence out of the field of news reporting. Walter Burns, his editor and boss, has other plans for him, and the battle between them to determine who wins, is the line we follow through the complicated twists and turns of the rest of the play.
It’s a beautifully constructed play, though it takes its time getting started. The first of 3 acts is overly expository, serving primarily to introduce us to Johnson, Burns, the girl Molly Malloy, the Sheriff, the girl Johnson plans to marry, and her mother. There are others who figure briefly but importantly in the plot that follows in acts 2 and 3, and Director Jack O’Brien has managed to fill all the roles (some twenty seven of them) with excellent actors, many of whom have been prominently featured in films and TV series.
Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson are played with great relish by Nathan Lane and John Slattery and you won’t find a better pair of sparring partners since Lunt and Fontanne. Mr. Lane in particular is a master of the art of comedy, seeming somehow to be playing perfectly naturally and at the same time, knowing exactly how to lead into, and how to meander happily out of a funny line that he’s delivered (or someone else has delivered), causing the laughter not to recede, but to grow. Mr. Slattery, so different in this than in the role that established him in Mad Men, is loose limbed and agile, loaded with energy and comical know how.
Jefferson Mays, playing a fussy hypochondriacal reporter, is eccentric enough to be hilarious, never once stepping over in to caricature. Sherie Renee Scott, known primarily for her work in musicals, is wonderfully unrecognizable as Mollie Malloy, the fallen woman who fights so hard to save Williams from the hangman’s rope.
John Goodman is here playing the dim-witted sheriff who contaminates most of the evidence. Holland Taylor, recognized and adored from TV’s 2 l/2 Men is useful and very funny as Johnson’s intended mother-in-law.
Robert Morse has a tiny role as a messenger, and manages to get a deserved hand on both of his exits. It’s a treat to watch a lovely veteran like Morse, lost to us for to many years while he rusticated in Hollywood, having forgotten none of his highly original comedy timing. For those like me who remember him in The Matchmaker, How to Succeed, Say, Darling, Take Me Along, right on up to his many seasons on TV’s Mad Men, it was pure joy to see him in top form back on the boards where he belongs. Others — Dann Florek, David Pittu, Patricia Connolly, Lewis J. Stadlen, Micah Stock and more — all making distinctive contributions all through the rich fruitcake of an evening.
Under Jack O’Brien’s controlled direction, this mob of distinguished players has been artfully arranged in Douglas Schmidt’s beautifully detailed news room, in Ann Roth’s evocative period clothes, in Brian MacDevitt’s very helpful lighting design which is used artfully as punctuation for each act. Once we get through all the expository material in Act One, the play picks up speed and doesn’t quit until the very last perfect final scene and last line. The world was a lot younger in 1928, but it was about to enter the Great Depression, and there were problems looming all over. But comedy and theater were there to brighten an hour or two (in this case, almost three), and a first rate one like this one was very welcome. For the same reasons today, it certainly still is.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with two intermissions.