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The Front Page

Iris Fanger visits 1920s Chicago--in Lowell--at Merrimack Rep's revival of the Hecht/MacArthur pressroom thriller.

From The Front Page
In this era of socially relevant "message" plays where nearly every evening in the theater is a jolt to the conscience, it's fun to sit back and revisit the roaring days of 1920s Chicago, where the gangster population and the people in city hall had nearly the same mugshots. The Front Page, given its stage premiere in 1928, followed by numerous theatrical revivals and film versions, was Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's love letter to the Windy City's newspapermen, who covered the big stories with a gusto that often seems missing among today's headlines.

The production at Merrimack Rep in Lowell gets most of the playwrights' intentions right, but with some problems in casting and tone. Director Russell Treyz has staged the play like a farce. However, there is a serious subtext beneath the melodrama of the plot, and it gets lost in the furious pacing and multiple gags of the comic moments. And it's hard to build to a climax when the opening beats are played at such a frenzy that some of the actors can't sustain the energy through to the end.

The spine of the play lies in star newspaperman Hildy Johnson's internal struggle to leave the profession he loves behind for marriage and a respectable job in advertising. Under the bluster, the playwrights have given Johnson a sense of compassion for an underdog who had few champions to defend his rights. In The Front Page

it's the anarchist, Earl Williams--literally dropping into Hildy's arms while making an escape from death row--who pushes the stakes of Hildy's decision up a notch.

Treyz keeps the action loud and fast, allowing little time for Chip Phillips as Johnson to elicit much sympathy from the audience. Phillips has the requisite sense of humor for Hildy, but misses endowing the character with the

From The Front Page
complexity that has made the role such a plum for actors. Doug Stender, as the bully of an editor Walter Burns, outshines nearly everyone on stage except Michael Poisson, as the Mayor, who is his match in lying, cover-ups, and false promises. As villains who sound contemporary in their greed and single-mindedness, they're the most appealing characters in the production. It's worth a trip to the Merrimack just to see these two actors dominate the stage.

The rest of the ensemble of reporters representing the different papers never succeed in creating characters that differentiate one man from the other, and generally give the impression of a moving, breathing backdrop. The women, an afterthought in this macho view of society, fare much better, with fine performances turned in by Beth Gotha as Jenny the scrubwoman, Jill Tasker as Mollie the Clark Street "tart" (the term "whore" was a shocker when it was spoken in the play in the 1920s), and Mary Klug in another of her delightful addled-lady portraits.

Frances N. McSherry has dressed the company in perfect period costumes. The set of the pressroom at the criminal courts building in Chicago, designed by Daniel Ettinger, has the architecture right, but who ever saw a group of reporters at work on a table that's bare of papers, notebooks, pencils, and typewriters? No one even pulls out a notebook until Act II.

Quibbles aside, it's good to have our memories jogged by this production of a gem from our national theatrical history, and good for Merrimack Rep to have found the resources to put a cast of 21 actors to work when many theaters fear spending money on a big production--unless it's set to music.

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