The Front Page
Nathan Lane and John Slattery star in a revival of the 1928 comedy about the press.
It was an age of tawdry scandals reported in hyperbolic headlines, when politicians colluded with police to keep their malfeasance hush-hush, and guys named Roy were very particular about their gluten intake. In truth, the world of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 comedy, The Front Page, is not entirely foreign to our own, and the new revival at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre is at its funniest when that resonance shines through. Unfortunately, the tone of the play is not always consistent: Audiences have to bore through mildly funny mountains of atmospheric and character-based humor before they strike comedic gold. The story here is laughter, but this hit-or-miss production buries the lede.
The story follows a group of newspapermen in Jazz Age Chicago: There's hard-nosed Murphy of the Journal (Christopher McDonald), down-on-his-luck Schwartz of the Daily News (David Pittu), and lazy bum Kruger of the Journal of Commerce (Clarke Thorell). They play cards in the criminal courts press room while awaiting the dawn execution of Earl Williams (John Magaro), who is to be hanged for the murder of a black policeman. These hacks are so jaded that they beg the sheriff (a buffoonish John Goodman) to move the hanging up a couple hours so they can file their stories in time for the next edition.
Herald-Examiner reporter Hildy Johnson (the very butch if somewhat wooden John Slattery returning to Broadway after years on TV's Mad Men) is ready to leave the whole sordid business behind: He's getting married to Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer) and taking a respectable advertising job in New York (this gets a knowing laugh from the Mad Men fans). That is, unless his completely unscrupulous editor, Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), can convince him to stay. Burns may not have to try very hard after Earl Williams busts out of jail and Hildy comes face to face with the biggest story of his career.
With a cast of 19, The Front Page clearly comes from an era when actors weren't so expensive and it wasn't as important for playwrights to economize on the dramatis personae: Robert Morse mugs and shrugs his way through a cameo that lasts no more than 10 minutes. With an accent that straddles the border between Alsace and Lorraine, Micah Stock wrings some laughs from the role of a dry German police officer. Sherie Rene Scott grounds her performance as "Clark Street tart" Mollie Malloy in real stakes that emotionally reverberate in this season of the "nasty woman." As hypochondriac reporter Roy Bensinger, Jefferson Mays plays his typical Mid-Atlantic eccentric, while Holland Taylor rather predictably takes the role of the killjoy mother-in-law. Individually, they're all very funny, but their performances become cacophony in concert. It begins to feel like the night of a thousand shticks.
Director Jack O'Brien fails to bring harmony to the proceedings during the lethargic first act. The piece only really begins to come together after 90 minutes, when Lane enters with a show-stealing performance.
Truly, no actor seems to naturally inhabit this world of gin and fedoras more than Nathan Lane. His every line is punchier and every tactic more plausible. At the risk of highlighting a theatrical cliché, no one performs a one-sided telephone call more believably than Lane. He exudes the manic Hearstian rage of the publisher who instinctively knows that news is more about entertainment than information: "No," he shouts over the phone at an underling, "leave the rooster story — that's human interest!" One suspects that were Burns a real person in 2016, he would be curating cat videos for Buzzfeed.
The whole ensemble benefits from Lane's presence as the dialogue and slapstick significantly tighten in the third act, as if by osmosis. One might explain away this delayed rallying of the troops as the natural trajectory of a three-act comedy: Of course the third act is funnier than the first two. That may be the case, but a play as lumbering and overloaded as The Front Page can never really take off without some serious divine intervention, and that's just what Lane provides.
While he doesn't inject the play with pep from the get-go, O'Brien does at least give the actors an opulent world in which to play. Douglas W. Schmidt's slanting, forced-perspective set offers a feast for the eyes, even if the roomful of conspicuously placed signs (one reads, "All nations welcome except Carrie") verges on 1920s-themed Disney attraction. Ann Roth's costumes (rumpled suits and faded ties) convey the period in a far more subdued fashion. An impressive visual effect by Jauchem and Meeh that re-creates a realistic shootout helps to end the sleepy first act with a much-needed bang.
Certainly, some viewers will be tempted to flee at the first intermission (there are two), but they really shouldn't: The Front Page takes a long time to warm up, but once it does, it proves worth the wait.