Review: ‘The Front Page’ by Providence Players

There are few perfect things in life, let alone in theater. But Providence Players’ The Front Page comes darn close. Every aspect of the production is first-rate.

L to R: David Whitehead as Walter Burns, Jaclyn Robertson as Peggy Grant and Chuck O’Toole as Hildy Johnson in the Providence Players production of The Front Page at the James Lee Community Center Theater. Photo by Chip Gertzog.
L to R: David Whitehead as Walter Burns, Jaclyn Robertson as Peggy Grant and Chuck O’Toole as Hildy Johnson in the Providence Players production of The Front Page at the James Lee Community Center Theater. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.

The newspaper world created for this 1928 screwball comedy by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht – themselves former reporters – is peopled by middle-aged, poorly-paid, working stiffs, ink-and-bourbon-stained journalistic rude mechanicals, cynical, card-playing, seen-it-all and made-some-of-it-up, competitive chasers after sensational stories, all happily schmoozing with the crooked pols, hookers, and cops who are their sources and targets. Nothing matters as much as the next big scoop. It is a far cry from the earnest, squeaky-clean newsrooms of All the President’s Men or Spotlight, and much funnier. It is all the more nostalgic in this era of print media’s decline.

The first wonderful thing the audience sees is the pressroom set itself. Dingy, with yellowing walls; cluttered with paper and bottles; lit by overhanging metal-shaded lights; decorated by old photos and notices stuck helter-skelter on the walls; filled with beat-up furniture (including, most importantly, a commodious roll-top desk) and miscellaneous telephones, it is the perfect habitat for its denizens, immediately setting the tone for the evening. There is a large open window, which serves numerous plot twists, and a very sturdy door, which survives numerous loud slams. The set/set dressing/props designers (John Coscia, Beth Harrison, Robbie Snow) outdid themselves.

Chuck O'Toole as Hildy Johnson and David Whitehead as Walter Burns in the Providence Players production of The Front Page on stage April 6 thru April 21. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.
Chuck O’Toole as Hildy Johnson and David Whitehead as Walter Burns in the Providence Players production of The Front Page. Photo by Chip Gertzog, Providence Players.

The show begins with the gaggle of reporters (Zachary Todd, Eric Trumbull, John Coscia, Patrick David, Steve Rosenthal, Rob Lee, and most notably Mike Bagwell as the local germ-phobic hypochondriac) having a regular day at the office, spiced by anticipation of the pending hanging of a cop-killer. The rapid, constant, overlapping chatter of the reporters – some scripted, much ad-libbed – is ensemble playing at its best, to the credit of the actors and director Michael Donahue. The cacophony never overwhelms individual lines that need to be heard, as when one of the reporters takes a phone call.

A latecomer to the scene is Hildy Johnson (Chuck O’Toole), star reporter, more clever, more handsome and more suave than his fellows, rather like Sky Masterson among the lesser gamblers of Guys and Dolls. He wears a cream-colored suit, standing out from the shabby, drab, often baggy outfits of the other reporters. He is ready to quit the gritty Chicago newspaper scene for an advertising job and respectable social climbing in New York, taking with him a society dame fiancée, Peggy Grant (Jaclyn Robertson). But his uber-manipulative boss, Walter Burns (David Whitehead, present only as an offstage telephone voice until part way through the second act), has other ideas.

A succession of quirky characters parade in and out of the pressroom. Among others, there’s the corrupt, none-too-bright sheriff (Bob Smith), the smarmy mayor (Craig Geoffrion), the tart with a classic heart of gold and vertically-striped stockings that could have been inspired by the notorious uniform socks of the 1960 Denver Broncos (Andra Whitt), Peggy’s domineering mother (Susan d. Garvey), and Mr. Pincus (Chris Persil, in a delightful cameo), dressed in a Soupy Sales-like outfit, who confounds the sheriff and mayor by perversely insisting on being honest. Every portrayal – and every costume (kudos to Christian Faulkner and Tommie Curtis) — captures a distinct individual, and each fits seamlessly into the fabric of the play.

The plot kicks fully into gear at the very end of the first act, when the recently escaped condemned killer Earl Williams (Bobby Welsh), almost literally falls into Hildy’s hands in the pressroom. This gives Hildy the chance for the scoop of a lifetime, but also presents two problems. First, how will he hide Williams – an inoffensive sort whose main complaint isn’t that he is about to be executed, but that he is labeled a Bolshevik when he’s really an anarchist – from the police and other reporters? Second, how will he smuggle Williams out of the courthouse to get an exclusive interview? Complications naturally ensue, and Burns – cigar-smoking, quick-thinking, willing to do or say anything to get his way, with the occasional hint of Groucho Marx – arrives to take charge. Everything apparently turns out well, as Hildy finally decides to put addiction to scoop-chasing behind him in favor of his girl, and Burns seemingly gives him his blessing. But characteristically, the boss has one last trick up his sleeve.

Donahue’s direction establishes the production’s concept and keeps its execution clear and consistently fast-paced throughout. There are no lulls here. The designers do their part with distinction. The sound design team (Jimmy Gertzog and John Smith) keep the telephone rings, sirens, and gunshots on time and provide some subtle ambient traffic noises in addition to the distinctly unsubtle sounds of sandbags dropping as jailers test the gallows. Together with the lighting design (Chip Gertzog), they provide a striking series of flashbulb snapshot freezes. The lighting design also includes a nice revolving searchlight effect when Williams escapes. As gunfire fills the air during the escape, there are amusing special effects (Chip Gertzog and Nicholas Queyrane) as objects in the press room splinter or fall.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Front Page, presented by the Providence Players of Fairfax, runs through April 21, 2018, at the James Lee Community Center, 2855 Annandale Rd, Falls Church, VA.  For tickets, call 703-425-6782 or go online.