There are a couple of ways to go in reviewing a new revival of The Front Page. One could bemoan the demise of hard copy and the glory days of tabloid journalism, not to mention of Broadway itself. One could wax Wiki about the celluloid spawn of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit, beginning with the Howard Hughes-produced 1931 film starring Adolphe Menjou as headline hungry newspaper editor Walter Burns and Pat O’Brien as his departing-but-not-really ace-in-the-hole, reporter Hildy Johnson. I could cut to the chase and tell you how Nathan Lane and John Slattery are doing as those dueling Windy City wisecrackers.
Let’s start there: Pretty damned great. Shortly into the first of the play’s three acts (three acts!) Slattery breezes into the grungy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, ostensibly to bid farewell to the male, meanly cynical reporters he’s passed much of the last 15 years with, playing poker, draining hip flasks and spinning out stories without much regard to the human beings unfortunate enough to have crossed their paths. Hildy’s engaged to a society girl from New York, where he’s bound for a cushy job in, yes, advertising (prompting much laughter from the opening night audience that included Slattery’s Mad Men colleague Jon Hamm).
With his fedora set at a rakish tilt and suit jacket slung over his shoulder, Slattery comes across as more of a Rat Pack swinger than a flapper-following flirt just before the Jazz Age was snuffed out by Black Monday. But it suits him and he’s an instant bright spot among the malcontents who’ve been forced into a long night awaiting the 7 AM hanging of Earl Williams, an illiterate white man who has been convicted of killing a black cop. Hildy’s plans inspire caustic merriment among his pals, who insist it won’t be long until he “has seven kids, a mortgage and belongs to a country club.” There’s also much ribbing of New York newspapers, especially the New York Times (“might as well work for a bank,” one says), inside jokes from two authors who knew newspapers, Chicago and its Second City neuroses better than anyone.
Earl (nicely underplayed by John Magaro) escapes, setting up what for Hildy is the irresistible lure of a big, breaking story while his wife and future mother-in-law (the well-cast Halley Feiffer and Holland Taylor) cool their heels in a cab downstairs. And they have formidable competition from Hildy’s boss Walter, who will do anything to keep Hildy at the typewriter.
Nathan Lane doesn’t make his entrance until nearly two hours into the show, but when he does — as Walter arrives to personally oversee his star reporter, make sure no-one scoops them and, just for the hell of it, sabotage Hildy’s pending nuptials — well, it’s springtime for Hitler, to coin a phrase. Walter abuses the present women and men with equal, venomous abandon; “Shut up!” is his favorite phrase And while some stars may be accused of chewing the scenery, Lane makes delicious love to it, in an extended bit of business with a rolltop desk worthy of Charlie Chaplin.
As a pair, Lane and Slattery fire on all cylinders as they conspire to keep the escaped killer hidden in that desk while the other reporters come back, joined by John Goodman’s buffoonish Sheriff Hartman and Dann Florek’s slick Mayor.
Jack O’Brien, who worked with Lane in the smash revival of It’s Only A Play, is a master at choreographing big casts so that no role seems left out of the limelight, and that’s a good thing given the array of stars aligned here: The reporters are played by a stellar company that includes Jefferson Mays (as the effete, poet manque Bensinger, of the Tribune), Dylan Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, David Pittu and Christopher McDonald. Sherie Rene Scott is the prostitute Mollie Malloy, whose heart of gold has opened up to Earl and who suffers the dire consequences of trying to break through the scribes’ cynicism.
There’s also Micah Stock as “Woodenshoes” Eichorn, the theory-bogged cop who has a better grasp of the situation than anyone can recognize, and, most joyfully, Robert Morse (another Mad Men ex and Broadway royalty to boot) as Pincus, the incorruptible messenger whose reprieve would gum up Walter’s plan.
All those stars for a hard-nose comedy that set a new bar for gruff, vulgar humor on Broadway and which remains a testament to casual racism (including a jarring reference to a “coon story” in one paper) and misogyny that makes me feel like a party pooper even to mention. Yet there it is in what’s essentially a wheezy plot whose main reason for continued life is the opportunity for two actors to strut and snap, crackle and pop, surrounded by a gang of experts in their craft.
And despite it all, there’s something too polished about the production, as evidenced by Douglas W. Schmidt’s set, which is perfect in every detail except hangdog crumminess, which may be the most important. Ditto the great Ann Roth’s slightly too-fashionable costumes. Crumple and dust, I’d have preferred more of.
In a stunt worthy of David Merrick (and really, I mean that in the nicest way), producer Rudin declined to offer critics preview tickets, insisting that we come opening night and write our reviews on deadline. I believe he hoped to recapture the spirit of a lost era, when we ink-stained kvetches tore up the aisle the moment the curtain came down, beating the paying customers to the Checker cabs lined up outside, to pound out our reviews in time for the early edition. There are no more Checker cabs, no more early editions, barely any newspapers to speak of. But there’s still us, and if anyone thinks we can’t turn it out on a dime and a prayer, you haven’t been paying attention to the world of the 24/7 news cycle. Thats not a scoop.