The Front Page
This is one of the pre-eminent comedies of the past century. Come to think of it, is there any other American comedy that is still being performed more than 80 years after its premiere? Hecht and MacArthur seem to have invented something new: colloquial, mile-a-minute, down-and-dirty, totally unsentimental, and totally American.
Although definitely funny, The Front Page has a little more to offer than just laughs. It is shot through with cynicism. Mendacity is everywhere (sorry, just saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Nobody's totally on the up-and-up, except the women in the story. I'm pretty sure that Hecht and MacArthur were consciously writing not just a gag-fest, but a satire, an exposé, a call for reform of immoral politicians and the equally ethically-challenged journalists who cover them. The play is as timely now as when it was written.
There's no better place to find immoral politicians than Chicago, and that's where the play is set, in 1927 at night in the press room where a bunch of reporters for Chicago's nine newspapers are hanging out waiting for an execution to take place the following morning. Nothing much going on until the condemned man shoots an alienist (the only obsolete word in the script, meaning a forensic psychiatrist) and escapes. The story takes off from there.
The somewhat dilatory first act shows us just how nasty these reporters can be. Every woman who steps onto the stage is treated worse than they would treat any dog. The only reason I can think of for the doesn't-advance-the-plot-at-all Mrs. Schlosser to be in this play is to highlight the rampant misogyny of this boys' club. You can taste something a little bit acrid while you're laughing.
Our protagonist is Hildy Johnson, a reporter who loves the journalistic life, but is giving it all up to move to New York and take a job in advertising in order to please his fiancée. The real love story here, though, is not between Hildy and Peggy, but between Hildy and Walter Burns, his managing editor. Will Walter really let Hildy get away from him? Burns, who in true star fashion doesn't corporeally appear on stage until more than halfway through the play, is one of the great inventions of the American theater. From his appearance onward, the play takes off like a runaway streetcar about to jump the track at any moment.
John Lawlor is perfectly cast and indelible as Burns. Tim McAlpine has a nice-guy quality about him no matter what the role, and it fits well here, since of all the reporters, Hildy is the least objectionable. Everyone else in this large cast does excellent work, and it would be desirable but impractical to name each and every one of them.
The set by Peter Parkin and Linda Wilson, the props by Marcelle Garfield Cady and Claudia Mathes, and the costumes by Lorri Oliver all perfectly capture gritty Chicago in the '20s and the unglamorous side of the newspaper business. There are a couple things out of place: someone is reading a newspaper with a sudoku in it; and the vintage telephones, the kind with the long stem and ear trumpet, have no cords to connect them to the wall or any telephone linepeople carry them around and talk on them as if they are cordless phones. Considering the verisimilitude of everything else, I wonder if these are anachronisms by mistake, or anachronisms on purpose, to show us that everything happening then could just as easily be happening in our own time.
I like the pacing that Jim Cady gives the play. The overlapping dialogue is comprehensible, not irritating (as in some Robert Altman movies). The talk is fast, but not rushed. Many years ago, I saw the widely praised Howard Hawks movie His Girl Friday, which is based on The Front Page, and I remember thinking: "This isn't so much funny as it is phony. Words are coming out of these characters' mouths faster than they could possibly think them." Not to besmirch the memory of Altman or Hawks, but Jim Cady does a better job.
This production of The Front Page ought to be seen by anyone who reads, watches, or listens to the news, and by anyone who votes. Or by anyone who just wants to spend a few really enjoyable hours at the theater.
The Front Page is being presented at the Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque through May 19, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.vortexabq.org or 505-247-8600.