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The Front Page

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 20, 2016

The Front Page 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 MacDevitt. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair & makeup design by Campbell Young & Luc Verschueren. Cast: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, and Robert Morse, with 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.
Theatre: Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

John Slattery and Nathan Lane
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The Internet may be adept at killing newspapers (or at least putting them on life support), but there's no way it can ever kill The Front Page. It hardly matters that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 comedy no longer has much relevance as either a social or a journalistic document; in its towering political shenanigans and its nonstop Gatling Gun dialogue that strikes the ear as an early precursor to the lacerating patois of David Mamet, it's about as timeless and indestructible on the page as any play of the last 100 years can be.

Not that you can always tell this from the Jack O'Brien revival of it that just opened at the Broadhurst, mind you. Among its two dozen or so cast members, many of which are major names from theatre and/or television such as Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and Holland Taylor, there is only one who scores an unconditional success, and a second who comes within spitting distance of it. Everyone else works hard—frequently too hard—to wring laughs from a script that needs nothing more than to be trusted. Across three acts and nearly three hours of playing time, that gets rather tiring.

What does not, thankfully, is the production's savior, John Slattery. He plays Hildy Johnson, the star reporter for the Chicago Herald-Examiner who has done the unthinkable and quit his job. He's getting married, you see, to a nice girl, and planning on moving with her to New York as soon as he says goodbye to his competitor-colleagues in the Criminal Courts Building's press room. While there, though, Earl Williams, who had been imprisoned for murdering a black man and being a communist sympathizer, escapes and vanishes, putting all the reporters as close to the front lines as they could hope to be (and maybe closer). Hildy, well trained by his demonic managing editor, Walter Burns, goes further and becomes embroiled in the story himself, shoving aside his nuptials for one last scoop.

Slattery invests Hildy with a smug sophistication, which makes you well aware he knows he's always the best one in any room he enters, and a blithe playfulness that reinforces the powerful, almost erotic charge he gets from his work. The resulting confidence bleeds into his every line, until he's rendered the quintessential alpha male of not just a century ago, but today: a predator and a protector all wrapped up in one. As Slattery plays him, Hildy is rigorously businesslike, but also romantic, and hard as nails but with a (tiny) soft center.

John Goodman with Christopher McDonald,
Dylan Baker, and Clarke Thorell
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Whether taking on his fellow in-the-trenches newspapermen, the fire-breathing Walter, his clingy fiancĂ©e Peggy, her domineering mother, or even the desperate Earl, he's convincing in his absolute command of the human psyche, his ability to know and adapt instantaneously to whatever audience he's playing to. But what sells this Hildy most is that he is, above all else, resolutely real. Slattery does not need to affect an accent or personality of particular broadness to unlock this man's inner nature—he merely approaches him honestly from every angle, and the rest takes care of itself. This approach is not embraced by most anyone else in the company.

Where Slattery strives constantly for the actual and the factual, too many of those that surround him either settle for unnoticeable (David Pittu and Christopher McDonald make uncharacteristically little impact as a pair of reporters) or, more frequently, caricature. Admittedly, some of that is built into the casting of performers who are known for embodying specific types and dare not stray: Lewis J. Stadlen and Dylan Baker, as two more from the press gaggle, or Danny Mastrogiorgio as a gravy-soaked Italian fixer. Jefferson Mays takes mincing to new extremes as the ultra-hypochondriac Bensinger, engaging in near-acrobatic feats of cowering to ensure we understand this is a man for whom even basic germs may as well be flying flesh-eating bacteria. Micah Stock's spin on a German police officer is so disconnected from reality, it would not be out of place in a Nazi sex farce.

Goodman, as the corrupt, dopey sheriff, is packed to bursting with empty bluster that has trouble finding its intended targets. As Earl, John Magaro drenches himself (and everyone within a 10-foot radius) with milquetoast obsequiousness that doesn't do a stitch to heighten the suspense of the fugitive's true nature. Patricia Conolly doles out a good bit of Irish shtick as a one-joke maid, and Robert Morse deploys plenty of googly eyes and nervous physicality to a letter bearer who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but neither builds their part out into three dimensions (which are invariably more amusing than one). Likewise, although Sherie Rene Scott and Halley Feiffer are somewhat restrained as Earl's protective girlfriend and Hildy's intended respectively, I've seen them both give these performances before.

Ditto Lane, who knows how curb-stomp any word into a comedic feast. He may be ferociously funny as Walter (he conjures a priceless bit from trying to move a rolltop desk), but he's also all wrong, lacking the naked drive and violent, skyrocketing ambition that must make him to Hildy a compelling alternative to Peggy. You need to believe that Walter controls the news and the city itself with a red-hot iron hand, but Lane just lets everything feel like a slap fight. Only Taylor captures a glimpse of the proper style by plumbing Peggy's mother for every drop of caustic disdain. She could be a lot sharper, more ready to draw blood like the men around her, but she's more in the neighborhood than Lane.

Much of this can be traced back to O'Brien, of course. He has, it must be stated, performed two critical tasks in preserving the militaristic rat-tat-tat-tat of the characters' speech, and in emphasizing the eerily eternal way the press plays politicians, and vice versa; one of the play's most legitimately terrifying (and still recognizable) features that it's rarely possible to know from minute to minute who's driving the story of the year (and maybe the decade). (Dann Florek's thoroughly professional, if less-than-energized, performance as the empty-suit mayor helps a lot here.)

But O'Brien should have done more to elicit the life-threatening urgency under which these people operate; especially with Lane's scenes, but throughout, the stakes never, ever get high enough. He also should have resisted the urge to start and end each act with freeze frames, which defuse momentum that ought to always be pitched above feverish. And though Ann Roth's costumes, Brian MacDevitt's lights, and Scott Lehrer's sound design are just right, Douglas W. Schmidt's hollow set evokes a skewed-perspective-cartoony locale in which action like this simply could not believably unfold.

As with any play as on-the-edge as this one, you have to buy into what's happening completely to fall in love with it, and only Slattery voices a cogent argument in favor of it. Each moment he's onstage, he's immersed in this world, thus guaranteeing that you are as well. It's such a nice place to visit that you're able to momentarily forget the manifest awfulness of our public servants and advocates that Hecht and MacArthur so adroitly documented and vivisected. Wonderful as he is, though, Slattery alone is not enough to make this version of The Front Page banner headline news.

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