The best way to sum up the fourth Broadway revival of The Front Page, the 1928 play about Chicago newspapermen, is the way their ads do: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor….Robert Morse. The show’s appeal, in other words, rests largely in its star turns, which often feel like cameos.
Most performers get no more than a few minutes to strut their stuff, although some make the most of it — Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) as an arty press scribe who has a neurotic aversion to germs; Dann Florek (best-known as Law and Order’s Captain Don Cragen, here making his Broadway debut) as Chicago’s corrupt mayor; the legendary Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Mad Men) as a statehouse messenger too dim to be corrupted. These are scenery-chewers of the first rank. (And what a grand set to chew, designer Douglas W. Schmidt having created a sky-high Criminal Court press room full of dark battered wood desks, fraying green felt, warning posters about diptheria, two-piece candlestick telephones, and gimlet-eyed men in fedoras – none of which exists anymore.)
Only one illustrious member of the large cast entirely escapes cameo status — Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, a scheming editor for whom no ploy is too low. Through the alchemy of his barking brilliance, Lane turns the entire third act into more or less a one-man show, everybody else transformed into his supporting players. But he doesn’t even appear on stage until the end of Act II.
It is surprising how much of a slog this nearly three-hour production can be at times until Lane’s entrance, despite the presence of a battalion of talented character actors.
Director Jack O’Brien is presenting a somewhat tamped down and cleaned up version of the script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, former Chicago newspaper reporters and future hot Hollywood screenwriters, who created a sharp-edged play that was as much a clear-eyed/cynical dissection of Chicago journalism and politics as it was a crackling screwball comedy. It inspired several movies, most memorably His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks in 1940, with Cary Grant playing Walter Burns, the editor, and his ace reporter Hildy Johnson turned into a woman, Rosalind Russell.
John Slattery, who portrayed the silver-haired ad executive Roger Sterling in the TV series Mad Men, has been cast as Hildy Johnson in the 2016 version at the Broadhurst. He is no Rosalind Russell – nor Pat O’Brien (from the 1931 movie), nor Jack Lemmon (from the 1974 remake directed by Billy Wilder.) But he gets the job done as the scoop-hungry newsman who is quitting in order to marry the girl of his dreams (Halley Feiffer.)
This will happen over Walter Burns’ dead body, if he has anything to say about it. Sure enough, just as Hildy is about to leave for the East and respectable employment, the Bolshevik cop-killer Earl Williams (John Magaro) escapes from jail and crashes into the press room when Hildy is there by himself. He’s no revolutionary, Williams pleads with Hildy; the shooting was an accident. He’s actually innocent, railroaded by the mayor and by his sheriff (John Goodman, who has shined brighter in other entertainments.) The scoop of the century has landed in Hildy’s lap, and he and Walter are determined to protect it from any encroachment – by the authorities, by other reporters, and by all the women in the cast, including his bride-to-be, future mother-in-law (Taylor) Williams’ girlfriend (Sherie Rene Scott), even the cleaning lady (Patricia Connolly).
It might be easier to conclude that the female characters are the most misused in The Front Page, if Magaro, making his Broadway debut, didn’t spend most of the show crammed into a roll-top desk with the cover closed.
It is worth noting that Front Page co-author Charles MacArthur was the husband of Helen Hayes, and the brother of John MacArthur, the insurance executive who founded the foundation that gives out the MacArthur “genius” awards. And, yes, a few newspaper reporters have won some of those genius grants. They’re still around.
The Front Page is on stage at the Broadhurst Theater (235 West 44th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, New York, 10036) through January 29, 2017
The Front Page. Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Jack O’Brien, set design by Douglas W. Schmidt, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian MacDevit, sound design by Scott Lehrer, featuring Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Rene Scott, Holland Taylor, 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, Clarke Thorell. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.