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Theatre in Review: The Front Page (Broadhurst Theatre)

Nathan Lane, John Goodman. Photo: Julia Cervantes

If you ask me, the reviews of The Front Page make entirely too much of Nathan Lane. This is nothing against the actor, who has been making me laugh, pretty much without fail, since 1982, and once again he does not disappoint. The authors of this heartless, hilarious escapade, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, have engineered a splendid entrance for him, in the middle of the play's second act (there are three). Lane is Walter Burns, managing editor of a Chicago newspaper and the most ferocious member of the den of headline hunters that make up the play's central population. A certain lady of dubious repute named Mollie Molloy -- we'll get back to her later -- has just thrown herself out of the window of the press room of the city's criminal courts building. As everyone rushes to get a look -- partly out of concern and partly in anticipation of an especially juicy scoop -- a man we haven't seen before is revealed upstage, his hat tilted rakishly over his face. Walter Burns is here, ready to take charge, and a comedy that has been slowly building is ready to explode.

And explode it does, with Lane driving the action like one of the Furies -- shouting like a stevedore at a respectable matron before arranging to have her carried off, physically, by a couple of shady characters; informing a colleague that he "has the brain of a pancake;" and frenziedly working the telephones as he attempts to manage an emerging bombshell story. "To hell with the Chinese earthquake!" he shouts to his assistant back at the office, by way of telling him page one has to be reworked; later, unable to reach the poor fellow, he mutters that never again will he hire anyone with a disease, especially diabetes. Not that everything Walter does is at the same frantic pitch. Sitting down and turning reminiscent, he says, "I was in love once. With my third wife." Most of the time, however, Lane sweeps the stage like a storm cell, stirring everyone and everything up in a gale of farcical action.

But the act-and-a-half that precedes Burns' appearance on the scene has plenty to offer, too. The director, Jack O'Brien, has skimmed the cream of New York's talent pool, filling the stage with an A-team of character actors playing hack reporters, crooked cops, charladies, prostitutes, and pretty, aggrieved young things. Take the example of Dylan Baker, on the phone, getting the details of a story, repeating the words "A love triangle? He killed her?" while breaking into a beatific smile. Or Lewis J. Stadlen, happily anticipating the arrival of the electric chair in Chicago: "County's going to toast 'em, like Lucky Strikes!" Or Jefferson Mays, as a germophobe reporter, fighting off an interloper with a flyswatter and collapsing into a puddle of anxiety when someone spits on his hand. Or Sherie Rene Scott, as Mollie, channeling Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, and the rest of the tough-talking dames on the Warner Brothers lot, telling the whole pack of them where they can get off, then jumping out of the window.

Mollie's leap -- and all that comes before it -- is in the service of a plot that starts out like a crime melodrama and, by degrees, gets faster and more furious, finally blooming into full-blown farce. A hapless fellow named Earl Williams has been implicated in the murder of a black policeman. It's just before the election, and the mayor and sheriff have rushed Earl to the gallows, branding him a communist in a brazen attempt at simultaneously securing "the colored vote" and portraying themselves as courageous battlers against the Red Menace. (The sheriff's election slogan is "Reform the Reds with a rope.") There's a reason, I suspect, why the producer Scott Rudin chose right now, in the middle of the most toxic presidential election since William Henry Harrison took the White House, to revive The Front Page; the play's depiction of political chicanery and media manipulation seems almost ripped from today's headlines.

As the play begins, night is falling and Williams is supposed to hang at dawn. However, he escapes and, before long, Hildy Johnson, Walter's star reporter, has Williams on ice as a manhunt scours the city; meanwhile, Hildy is desperate to escape Walter's clutches and run off to New York -- and a career in advertising -- with his fiancée, Peggy. The rest unfolds in a whirl of threats, plots, gunplay, bribery, blackmail, abductions, and some of the tastiest invective ever hurled across a stage.

I see I've left out Clarke Thorell as the laziest of reporters, who prefers playing his banjo to covering a story; Micah Stock as the shifty-looking, German-accented cop, Woodenshoes Eichorn, who has a hundred theories about the case, all of them Freudian; John Goodman as the dim-bulb sheriff, who is hard-pressed to explain why he handed his gun over to Williams; Halley Feiffer, increasingly apoplectic as Peggy as the departure time for New York draws near; Holland Taylor as her mother, the embodiment of vengeance in a bizarre -- if totally in-period -- hat; Dann Florek as the mayor, forever on the edge of delivering his stump speech, complete with grand gestures; John Magaro as Earl, insisting that he isn't a Bolshevik, he's an anarchist, even as he gets stashed inside a rolltop desk; and Robert Morse, as a clueless delivery man, carrying Williams' reprieve from the governor and utterly unable to grasp why so many blandishments -- jobs, cash, women -- are suddenly being thrown in his direction.

Of course, the entire production turns on John Slattery as Hildy. He first appears as dapperly decked out as the Arrow Collar Man, ready to chuck a grimy newshound's existence for a New York executive suite. He has even begun to affect a cane. But put him near a scoop and something happens: A wild look comes into his eyes, and suddenly he is as tensed as a greyhound at the starting gate; soon he is spitting out dialogue as fast as a ticker-tape machine while fending off anyone who gets in his way. Slattery also has a fantastic chemistry with Lane; it's pretty clear that Hildy is never going to escape Walter -- not that he really wants to.

O'Brien has hired a crack team of pros to design this revival. Douglas W. Schmidt's angled view of the press room -- the walls covered with notes, the main table littered with telephones -- is backed by a forbidding series of Victorian piles representing the criminal courts and prison buildings. It's an ideal setting for all sorts of mayhem, lit with noirish panache by Brian MacDevitt. Ann Roth's costumes capture every detail of men's clothing of the period (1928) along with the tailored suits and cloche hats favored by the ladies. Scott Lehrer's sound design stylishly provides the necessary effects -- ringing phones, police alarms, gunshots -- along with zesty examples of period tunes, including, for the ride-out, "Chicago," everyone's favorite tribute to that toddlin' town.

It all builds up to a precision-engineered denouement and what appears -- at least for a second -- to be a moment of real sentiment, followed by one of the greatest cappers in American comedy. ("That son of a bitch stole my watch!") Rarely have such brutally cynical doings been rendered with such a loving hand -- and everyone makes a contribution to the overall effect. That's a scoop you can take to the bank. -- David Barbour

(2 November 2016)

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