“The Front Page”: Broadway’s Big Banner Headline

The Front Page
John Slattery and Nathan Lane in the Broadway revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

With the media taking a widespread public shellacking, and with political correctness staunchly afoot, and with locker room banter about women the subject of much critical comment, you might think the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page would be a poor prospect for revival.

After all, the comedy-drama takes place in a Chicago prison pressroom where the dyed-in-the-wool cynical occupants do almost nothing but mouth off, where locker room banter might as well be called “press-room banter” and where, at one point in the play, the gentlemen of the press treat a blowsy lady so uncavalierly that she jumps out of a window.

Nathan Lane gives great phone.

Yet here’s a production directed by Jack O’Brien at the Walter Kerr Theatre (named for the late theater critic, a distinguished newsman in his own right), and it’s instantly the first must-see Broadway offering of the season. That recommendation might surprise, given that producer Scott Rudin — the top-billed of 27 individuals and entities above the title — insisted that only “major” critics attend opening night, just as they did during the Roaring Twenties, forcing them to run up the aisles to file their review on a tight deadline, and eschewing all the usual pre-opening press nights. “Minor” reviewers, like this scribe, were held off to post-opening performances.

The underlying suggestion behind all of this, courtesy of worrisome word-of-mouth, was to minimize the response to a misguided revival. Consider this, then, a belated rave for the three-act work, which is about political corruption spinning around a convoluted plot — involving the impending hanging of a convicted radical who’s proclaimed his innocence to one of his alleged murders, if not to the shooting of a police officer.

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When this Front Page resurrection was announced — with Nathan Lane heading a cast that includes John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse and below-the-title stalwarts like Lewis J. Stadlen, Dylan Baker, David Pittu, Dann Florek, Halley Feiffer, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Patricia Conolly, Clarke Thorell, Joey Slotnick, Christopher McDonald, John Magaro and Micah Stock — it looked on paper like the surefire hit we now know it will be.

Earl Williams (Magaro) is due to be hanged at 7am — or about 10 hours later than a passel of prison reporters (Stadlen, Baker, Mays, Thorell, MacDonald, Slotnick, Mays) are discovered in Douglas W. Schmidt’s stunning version of a now-obsolete pressroom in which candlestick telephones are coveted objects. The men play poker or otherwise occupy themselves with not much but the urge to crack wise.

They’re also wondering about the usual leader of their pack, Hildy Johnson (Slattery), who’s rumored to be quitting the Herald-Examiner not only to marry the pert Peggy Grant (Feiffer), but to get out from under the thumb of his hard-nosed editor, Walter Burns (Lane).

Hildy does show up, wielding a fancy walking stick that amuses the boys for its affectation. He insists he’s walking out on his many journalism years to go into advertising. (Slattery, alum of TV’s Mad Men, gets a laugh on that one.) He maintains his decision to leave, but when Williams pulls an escape leading up to the end of Act I, Hildy can’t resist covering it. He can’t stop himself getting as much of a drop on his frenzied colleagues as he can — and succumbing to Burns’ incessant telephoned demands.

All hell breaks loose during the demonically constructed second and third acts. The sheriff (Goodman) and the mayor (Florek), both integrity-challenged and both up for reelection in just the next few days, need to hang Williams as a guarantee of their law-and-order stance. (Williams is an obvious stand-in for Sacco and Vanzetti.)

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What else? Williams shows up not where he’s rumored to be, according to tips the reporters receive but closer to where they’re pacing. Peggy’s mother (Taylor) gets in the way and must be forcibly removed by Diamond Louie (Mastrogiorgio), Burns’ crony. A dizzy fellow (Morse) then arrives with an order from the governor that could monkey-up the best-laid mayor-sheriff plans. A police officer (Stock) with psychological theories to explain various situations wanders in and out, as does a beloved cleaning lady (Conolly). All this and more before all comes right, as it must in this sort of well-made play.

The first must-see Broadway offering of the season.

Now comes a caveat — although it shouldn’t have to be. Because Hecht and MacArthur want the first act to establish the pressroom atmosphere, The Front Page is initially a bunch of bored reporters in fedoras (Ann Roth’s period costumes are pitch-perfect) trying to top each other’s lines as they bet on cards and, in one instance, strum a ukulele. Such fast-talking newsroom is orchestrated impeccably by O’Brien. What’s required of the audience, however, is close attention to all that’s said — that is, to every seemingly throwaway comment. Otherwise — and this is evidently happening at some performances — the audience only seems to wait for more kinetic action to happen.

Another way of saying this is: they’re waiting for Nathan Lane to appear, who for much of the play is only heard spewing out of a red-necked candlestick phone. Arguably the only true Broadway marquee name nowadays, Lane finally does barrel through the upstage door near the end of Act II.

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And then he unleashes the performance you’ve waited for. It is replete with an artillery of sly takes and withering looks, Lane’s innate sense of when to raise and when to lower the volume. One thing Lane does as well as, or perhaps better than, anyone else is give great phone. He does it here repeatedly. And he has the curtain line, one of the best ever.

To be sure, The Front Page is dated. Hecht and MacArthur wrote it when major American cities could support many daily newspapers. Today, if a big town has two, it’s a gift.

With all its cynicism, with all its focusing on political baseness (perhaps not so dated today), with all its unquestioned chauvinism, The Front Page is a tough-minded screed about the good old bad old days. O’Brien’s gorgeously etched presentation is as good as it gets.