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Chicago by John Olson

The Front Page
TimeLine Theatre Company

Also see John's review of White Noise

The Front Page
P.J. Powers and Terry Hamilton
Today's Chicago Tribune often seems barely thick enough to line the birdcages of a mid-sized PetSmart store, but this classic comedy written in 1928 by former newspapermen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur celebrates the days when at least eight daily papers competed for the attention and the pennies of Chicago readers. Sensational crime stories were key to selling papers back then, and The Front Page concerns itself with the denizens of the press room at the Chicago Criminal Courts Building. The reporters are crusty, rough & tumble types who work odd hours covering trials or, in the case of this story, waiting for an execution by hanging scheduled for 7 a.m. the next morning. Thanks to superb character acting and an amazingly detailed production design that stands up to up-close examination in an in-the-round staging, that era and milieu has been lovingly brought back to life in TimeLine's revival.

Program notes say that this production uses the earliest surviving text of the play, one which has been cleaned up for most subsequent productions and the many feature film adaptations of it. In this original script, the newspapermen are sexist, profane and a little racist. The newspaper game of the 1920s was, like so many things, a man's world, and the crime reporters in it the manliest among journalists. The play spends much time establishing this world. It was still common in the late '20s for high society types not to show up for the theatre until the second act, so the first act is mostly an introduction of the eight reporters, a cop, the county sheriff, the cleaning lady (whom they know all too well from working their insanely odd hours) and the hooker girlfriend of the condemned man. It's not until two-thirds or so into the act that we even met protagonist Hildy Johnson, who's working the last few hours of his job with the Herald-Examiner before leaving Chicago and the newspaper business to move to New York, where he plans to get married and start a new career as an advertising executive. Circumstances and his controlling boss, Walter Burns, conspire against that happening, and therein lays the conflict of this comedy, which becomes a wildly funny farce in the second act.

None of this is to suggest TimeLine audiences should skip the first act. Though it is a bit of a slog getting through it, you can enjoy the fine character work of Don Blair, Mike McNamara, Loren Lazarine, Michael Kingston, Alex Goodrich and Mark Richard as the "chorus," if you will, of court reporters. While Richard is a standout as the prissy and germophobic Tribune reporter, the others have little importance to the plot but you can enjoy the artistry of their chaotic overlapping banter and the manic pace of Nick Bowling's impeccable direction. Savor also the set by Collette Pollard, the costumes by Lindsey Pate, and the multitude of period telephones, desks and typewriters assembled by prop designer Julia Eberhardt. Pollard's environmental set places the audience inside the press room, with the reporters' desks mostly in the middle, and playing areas carved out of the four corners. One of those corners is the men's room and also the audience's entrance, so you can check out the vintage girlie magazines posted on its walls while filing into the auditorium.

Once P.J. Powers as Hildy enters late in act one, the premise is fully set up and the play begins to take off. Powers has all the energy of the rest of the cast, but his character's motivation to collect his things and get out of town gives the play its forward motion. All of the pieces that have been put into place come together. The slimy Sheriff, a deliciously weaselly Bill McGough, is shown to be a bit of a crook, and the secondary focus of the newspapermen—to expose crooked politicians as well as to cover lurid crime stories—is established. Hildy's desire to leave the newspaper business seems less certain when the condemned man escapes and finds refuge with Hildy in the press room, giving Hildy the scoop of his career. Suddenly, it's Hildy protecting his scoop against the other reporters and the authorities (who include a delightfully addled and pompous Mayor played by Rob Riley and a well-meaning but bumbling cop played by John Gray), while waiting for an expense reimbursement from his boss that will allow him to get on the train to New York with his lovely fiancée Peggy (the charming Bridgette Pechman Clarno) and her Margaret Dumont-esque mother (Angela Bullard).

Hildy's managing editor, Walter Burns, shows up halfway through the second act, and Terry Hamilton makes it clear why this role has been one of stage and film's juiciest. His Burns, though in management, can still play the crime reporter game more deviously than any of the reporters. He's both an accomplice and adversary to Hildy—helping Hildy protect the fugitive condemned man (frantically played by Rob Fagin) while deviously contriving to keep Hildy in his employ at the paper. There's conflict and suspense on so many levels, all orchestrated perfectly by Bowling and his cast, that the production makes the case for The Front Page—the second act of it any way—as a farce of the highest order.

The remainder of the cast is also deserving of praise. Malcolm Callan handles the dual roles of the crook Diamond Louie (newly employed by Burns) and a state bureaucrat so effectively you'd never know without reading the program it was same actor. With some quick costume changes, his zoot-suited con man becomes a mousy bureaucrat with some significance to the plot. Mechelle Moe is sympathetic as the loyal girlfriend to Fagin's accused murderer and Laurie Larson convincingly takes on the dual roles of the cleaning lady and the suffering wife of an accused criminal.

The Front Page is a perfect play for TimeLine's mission to examine history through drama, exploring parallels and lessons for today, and they've delivered what must surely be a near-perfect production of The Front Page. They're to be commended for returning to the original script and, though I wouldn't object if the first act were pruned a bit, we can appreciate the authenticity in the name of using the opportunity to explore some theater history at the same time.

The Front Page runs through June 12, 2011, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information, call the TimeLine Theatre Box Office at 773.281.8463 ext 6 or buy online at timelinetheatre.com.


Photo by Lara Goetsch

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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