David Zoffoli, in his fifth season as associate director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, recently spoke with Russell Treyz, returning to MRT after directing A Midsummer Night's Dream last season, about directing The Front Page, Hecht & MacArthur's comedy about Chicago in the 1920s.

Russell Treyz
Russell Treyz
David Zoffoli: What excites you about directing The Front Page?

Russell Treyz: Well, first and foremost, it's really a play written from the point of view of character and plot. I love having a tightly scripted piece and lots of wonderfully meaty characters--it's truly "well-made." It's about power and greed and what happens to people when they put too much emphasis on their work and careers as opposed to prioritizing living life. Often today we're in the position where we have to make the same kinds of choices that Hildy is presented with: career or a valued life. So I think it's a play with resonance for today. Structurally, it rattles right along at a terrific clip, with just about every plot device you can imagine. It's got everything!

DZ: Chicago in the 1920s was a hotbed of criminal activity and The Front Page surely reinforces that fact. Why do you think the playwrights chose comedy as a medium for this story?

RT: I always find that comedy lends a perspective. If we can laugh at it, we can see it [the playwright's intention]. But this play is much more than just a comedy, despite its farcical moments. It has drama and pathos and a wonderful blend of real life replicated onstage with all its foibles. As the momentum of the play builds, the action certainly gets larger, and perhaps funnier, yet the story has a very real and plausible basis. And yes, it has a happy ending--which is a classical criterion for comedy--but there are characters that die in the play. It's not tragic like Hamlet, with dead bodies strewn across the stage, but the dramatic aspects of the piece certainly give us pause.

DZ: Although "media-bashing" is a rather common occurrence today, The Front Page exposed the press as corrupt and manipulative in 1928. What would you say about the relationship between the press and the municipal government in the play?

RT: It seems to be very competitive. The reporters need to out-strategize each other to do their jobs well. And of course, there's a certain amount of palm-greasing that goes on. The reporters report what the politicians want them to report to get certain favors, and politicians make backroom deals for better leverage. Clearly the play exposes the fact that we the public don't always get the right kind of news--that is, news that is totally unbiased--because the press is doing some politicking on the side to negotiate a better seat or a better angle or a better story. These reporters really lead identical lives, in that they're all trying to get that special story. They're competing with each other for "the scoop" so they can sell more papers.

DZ: The Roaring '20s--as the decade is called--was perhaps a reaction to the stringent provincialism that became pervasive and manifested by Prohibition, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Palmer raids, to cite a few examples. Yet, the arts were flourishing, notably Jazz, Bauhaus, and the Lost Generation of writers [e.g. Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thorton Wilder]. Any comment on how art reflects society?

RT: Well, I really believe that it is in times of change that the arts can flourish. Another obvious example is during Elizabethan England when the great masterpieces of Shakespeare and Michelangelo were created. If the time is static and people are more concerned with staying where they are and not disrupting the status quo, then the arts will reflect that and find a kind of stasis too. If however, we find ourselves in a more turbulent society, then the arts become a prime reflection of that--a "mirror up to nature"--as Hamlet says. Of course, all of this is a reductive way of understanding the pivotal role the arts play in any given society. I do think, though, that when society is satisfied with itself--when the status quo is self-complacent--the arts provide a much-needed "mirror" that perhaps instigates an important and progressive signal for change.


DZ: The play is set in the press room, with representatives from competing newspapers working and socializing together. What's special about this environment?

RT: Well, the press room is right in the heart of city hall, so the press is inextricably linked to the daily workings of the city's government. It's the direct "hotline" for all breaking news, including emergencies such as fires, and because of its location, particularly handy for the mayor to issue press statements as often as necessary. It really is the central artery for information so that the reporters can do their jobs effectively and run out to cover a story at a moment's notice. I guess you could say that journalism hadn't been decentralized yet. This was action central, and the single place for fast breaking news. Today a CB radio accomplishes nearly as much.

DZ: What are the playwrights saying about capital punishment?

RT: They're against it. However, in the story of the play, the press and the politicians are more interested in what they want or what they can get by manipulating the story, instead of the real issue of a man's life hanging in the balance. Thematically, they're saying that the story--the scoop--is more important at any cost than humanity.

DZ: The character of Hildy struggles with a familiar conflict: he's passionate about his career as a reporter and yearns for a "normal" family life free from work-related stress. How does he resolve this personal dilemma?

RT: Ultimately, one suspects that his career is going to come first for him because we understand how passionate he is about his work during the course of the play. In fact, this dilemma is the character's central action in the piece. We watch him trying to find a resolution, and that's what makes the play so universal and accessible and real. Without giving away the ending, he does make a choice, but we believe that his life after the curtain comes down may force him to change his mind.

DZ: What can you tell us about the design of the show?

RT: The costumes are absolutely realistic and Frances [designer Frances McSherry] is working her magic to replicate some wonderfully authentic period detail. The set is similarly realistic and based on David's [producing artistic director David G. Kent] observations of Chicago's architecture on a recent trip there. Apparently, after the great fire in Chicago, many of these municipal buildings were rebuilt with a certain magnificence in the design. In our production we want to reference how the press room is housed within this opulent structure. The reporters are really more like squatters living a kind of hobo existence, in that they carve out a special place for themselves in this room. We want to see that juxtaposition of what the city dreamed about in creating this magnificent room and how it's really used on a day-to-day basis.