Look, we’re all depressed this election year. We’re sick of seeing know-nothing politicians; of hearing obscene language insulting women and minorities; and we’re disgusted by the media’s bottomless appetite for sensationalism. The only antidote I can suggest for this national malaise is a visit to the Broadhurst Theatre to see the 5,000-volt revival of The Front Page. What’s it about? Oh, all that stuff I just mentioned—but whipped into a hellacious comic frenzy by one of the best acting ensembles you and I may ever see. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 evisceration of the newspaper racket is a summit of American screwball comedy, and Nathan Lane, John Slattery and two dozen other actors climb it and plant their flag. It’s strange to feel so invigorated and refreshed by a spectacle of rampant cynicism in which love, truth and loyalty are systematically demolished. But see this brutally brilliant masterpiece, and you’ll be inoculated against the viciousness of the world.
Last seen on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater 30 years ago, The Front Page takes place in the filthy press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts building. A supposed Communist, Earl Williams (John Magaro) is scheduled to be hanged for the shooting of a black policeman. Williams’s execution is expected help the Mayor (Dann Florek) and Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) whose political careers lean heavily on Red baiting. The finest scum of Chicago’s tabloid reporters are present to report every salacious detail, including Endicott (Lewis J. Stadlen), Schwartz (David Pittu), Murphy (Christopher McDonald), McCue (Dylan Baker), Wilson (Joey Slotnick) and Kruger (Clarke Thorell). A late arrival is the germaphobic snob Bensinger (the incomparable Jefferson Mays) whose roll-top desk will play a key part in the action as the play goes on. Hildy Johnson (Slattery), star reporter for the Examiner, drops by to bid drunken farewell to his inkstained cronies. Hildy is engaged to sweet young Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and bound for New York City, where he plans to trade hack journalism for advertising (the Mad Men resonance gets a laugh). “I’ve been a newspaperman fifteen years,” Hildy admonishes his dubious, wisecracking peers. “And if you want to know something, you’ll all end up on the copy desk—gray-haired, humpbacked slobs…when you’re ninety.” The only thing that could quash Hildy’s foolproof exit strategy is a breaking news story, which acts upon his nerves like a sizzling spoon of dope to a junkie. By the end of the first act, the spoon hits the flame.
There have been multiple film versions of The Front Page, so you may already know where the story goes (the condemned man escapes and makes a surprise appearance), so I won’t spoil any more. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. Director Jack O’Brien’s pedal-to-the-metal production is astonishingly true to the spirit and letter of the script (although Hecht and MacArthur’s text has been scrubbed of some obsolete slang and racial slurs). Douglas W. Schmidt’s grimy set, Brian MacDevitt’s noirish lighting and Ann Roth’s stylish suits and dresses create a perfect illusion without a speck of dust (at least, no dust that shouldn’t be there). Scott Lehrer’s sound design is also excellent, evoking the world outside the window of the press room, reminding us that real death looms over the gallows-humor yuks (the cops are testing the hangman’s noose down in the courtyard). O’Brien’s pacing is masterful, guiding us from belly laughs to a sudden, sickening drop in our stomachs.
What seals the deal is the acting. This ensemble is filled top to bottom—from leading man to fleeting cameo—with some of the best actors in this town. I haven’t even mentioned Nathan Lane, who plays Hildy’s cold-blooded bastard of an editor Walter Burns, a man who would set his mother on fire if it would sell a few papers. Lane and Slattery’s mutually abusive, rat-a-tat rapport is a thing of beauty. At times I was sure these roles had been written for them. And Jefferson Mays get splendid comic business out of disgust with his co-workers’ lack of hygiene—not to mention an exit through a door with an open umbrella. Sherie Rene Scott drifts through, tragically, as a prostitute sympathetic to Williams. As Hildy’s starchy prospective mother-in-law, Holland Taylor is amusingly horrified and offended. And Micah Stock’s deadpan German cop peddling his psychological theories nearly steals his scenes—from whomever stole them moments before him.
If there’s a downside to seeing The Front Page, it may be realizing that American theater can’t—or won’t—produce plays like it anymore: big-cast, unsentimental, piety-puncturing social comedies that dare to offend. Nearly a century before the advent of TMZ, reality TV, 24-hour cable news and social media, Hecht and MacArthur squeezed bitter laughs from the death of the newspaper business. Well, it’s still dying, and hacks like Hildy are still dreaming of greener pastures. The vulgarian coarseness it depicts is quaint compared to what we hear and see in the media over the course of even a presidential race. Let’s hope a living playwright can capture our grotesque tabloid society in a comedy of comparable swagger and outrage. Just don’t expect to see it reported in the news.
Broadhurst Theatre (Broadway). By Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Jack O’Brien. With Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, and Robert Morse, Dylan Baker, Patricia Conolly, Halley Feiffer, Dann Florek, John Magaro, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Christopher McDonald, David Pittu, Joey Slotnick, Lewis J. Stadlen, Micah Stock and Clarke Thorell. Running time: 2hrs 50mins. One intermission. Through Jan 29. Click here for full ticket and venue information.