Monday, October 31, 2016

The Front Page: Old Pros

John Slattery and Nathan Lane in The Front Page at Broadway's Broadhurst Theater. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

In recent years every Broadway season has included a top-flight revival of a classic American play. Last year it was Long Day’s Journey into Night, the year before You Can’t Take It with You and Of Mice and Men the season before that. But they don’t always get the respect they’ve earned. The mediocre notices for Jack O’Brien’s production of the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy The Front Page with Nathan Lane and John Slattery have been utterly perplexing. I saw the show just before the press opening and walked away in a state of bliss. O’Brien has gathered together a dazzling cast to mount what I’d say is one of the three best comedies ever written by Americans, and watching them parry and thrust, negotiate Hecht and MacArthur’s hilarious banter and glide through the perfect mechanics of the farce plot with acrobatic grace is akin to buying a ticket for a revue in vaudeville’s heyday and discovering that every single act is good enough for the coveted penultimate slot on the bill.

The trio of plays I’d place at the top of the pantheon are all hard-boiled comedies from the same era; the others are Chicago by Maurine Watkins (the 1926 source material for the musical) and Kaufman and Hart’s 1930 Once in a Lifetime, a chronicle of the runaway lunacy that reigned when Hollywood switched over from silent pictures to talkies virtually overnight. The hard-boiled comedy is high comedy’s cheerfully vulgar and irreverent opposite number. They’re sardonic and satirical, and at their center is a club of wised-up cynics that is every bit as exclusive and wary of intruders as the aristocracy in a high comedy. These plays share a soiled modern vision of the world – that it’s a lousy, iniquitous place to land but you can get by if you’re smart and imaginative and good at your job and if you’ve got a nose for bullshit. In The Front Page, the club is the cadre of Chicago reporters who hang out in the press room of the criminal courts building while they wait to cover the hanging of a convicted murderer named Earl Williams who has been more or less railroaded. They insult each other good-humoredly but save their real disdain for the outsiders – especially the platitude-mouthing representatives of Chicago’s institutions, politics (the mayor) and law and order (the sheriff, Hartman), who are corrupt and inept in equal parts. The reporters are shameless manipulators and sneaks, but their offenses are relatively benign; they may bitch to Hartman that he’s arranged the execution too late for them to make the morning edition, but they’re not the ones who rescheduled it three times to make use of it for re-election tactics and who try to bribe the courier the governor sends with a reprieve to disappear so he doesn’t spoil their big showcase. The ace of the press corps is Hildy Johnson (Slattery), probably the most skillful reporter in Chicago. But he’s leaving The Examiner, and his tyrannical editor Walter Burns (Lane), and even Chicago itself to marry his girl and move east. The arc of the play leads him by degrees to a recognition that if he’s true to himself he can’t do any of these things because at that paper and in that sweaty press room amid those wisecracking misanthropes, he’s home.

The play has been filmed repeatedly, first in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, with Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Walter – roles originated on Broadway by Lee Tracy and Osgood Perkins (Tony’s dad). This version is one of the high points of the pre-Hays Code period, with overlapping dialogue that explodes like popping corn. Howard Hawks directed the 1940 remake, His Girl Friday, proof that it’s possible to take a perfect piece of writing and make it even better. In a burst of inspiration, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, with Hecht’s uncredited assistance and that of Morrie Ryskind, shifts Hildy’s gender and adds a layer of romantic comedy, which Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play with seasoned finesse. In this version Walter and Hildy used to be married, so his schemes to hold onto her and keep her from tying the knot with another man are professional and romantic.) There’s a 1974 retread with Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter; Billy Wilder directed it, but as I recall it’s overworked. The amiable 1988 Switching Channels, with Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds, retains the gender switch from His Girl Friday and updates the print journalists to TV news reporters. And then there are the unofficial semi-remakes. Pauline Kael pointed out that Hecht and MacArthur, writing Gunga Din (1939) for Howard Hawks, more or less copied the basic plot from The Front Page but set it among soldiers in colonial India, and the 1996 Twister cast Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as storm-chasing ex-spouses whose relationship, reanimated by danger, closely echoes that of Hildy and Walter.

Hawks, like Milestone, ran the dialogue at lightning speed, but in the new revival O’Brien and his ensemble take a different tack: it’s somewhat leisurely – not slow by any means, but lingering enough to give the grace notes in the performances a chance to soak in. (The motif of beginning and ending each act with a flash-photo freeze prepares us for this approach.) Played with both intermissions, it comes in at about two hours forty-five, and the matinee audience I saw it with dug in and wasn’t anxious to get out of their seats when it was over. (O’Brien made absolutely the right decision about the intermissions; three-act plays may be out of fashion, but revivals of older works that don’t take a break until after act two altering the shape of the thing, and the ones that break up the second act, like the recent Metropolitan Playhouse production of S.N. Behrman’s End of Summer, make mincemeat out of the carefully arranged structure.)

At first the idea of casting Nathan Lane as Walter Burns may seem a little odd, but that’s because we’re used to Walters whose matinee-idol great looks are part of their charm: Menjou, Grant, Robert Ryan in the celebrated 1970 Broadway revival. We start hearing about Burns at the beginning of the play, but we don’t actually see him until midway through act two when he slips quietly into the press room while all the reporters are focused on the action just offstage right. (It’s the only time he does anything quietly.) Burns’ entrance must be the best prepared, most eagerly anticipated in any play since the title character in Molière’s Tartuffe, who also comes in at roughly the halfway point, and though I think the fact that in this version we hear him, always shouting, over the phone before we see him could undermine the effect of his late arrival, that fireplug Nathan Lane is such a bundle of tightly focused energy that nothing could possibly sideline him. His Walter alternates fury, exasperation, sarcasm, incredulousness and melodramatic desperation; he looks ulcerated but you know this man couldn’t have ulcers because he represses nothing. (He gives other people ulcers.) Walter takes everything personally, as if the whole world were out to screw him up by allowing any little detail – illness, an impending marriage, a wife in labor – to get in the way of his paper, his front-page headline. Lane is probably the funniest line reader on the American stage, with timing so precise and yet so off-kilter that your jaw keeps dropping. He’s also a gifted physical comedian who can use his own double chin for comic punctuation. In act three he offers up the ideal farce bit: while Hildy is on the phone downstage, Lane’s Walter, upstage, struggles to move a rolltop desk in which is hidden Earl Williams (John Magaro), who’s escaped due to Hartman’s stupefying incompetence and whom Hildy has squirreled away on instinct so The Examiner can scoop every other paper in Chicago. Lane leans his whole body into it; though his face is turned away from us, we can just almost see the sweat pouring off his brow – and the damn desk doesn’t move an inch. It’s like a perfect silent-comedy routine.

John Goodman, John Slattery and Nathan Lane in The Front Page. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

A number of critics have claimed that Slattery is miscast as Hildy Johnson, which is such a bad call that I can only guess they mean that Hildy is nothing like Roger Sterling, the character he played on the TV series Mad Men. Slattery, who makes his first entrance stewed, with a defiant cowlick over his left brow like a raised middle finger, seems to me exactly right as Hildy, an incorrigible adolescent inside a been-around-the-block skeptic, a romantic whose most extravagant and most compelling stands are made in the resolutely male world of the press corps rather than the arena of courtship. Walter’s manipulation of Hildy is always self-serving, Walter being the comic embodiment of narcissism, but in this fable of male bravado resisting domestication he’s also helping Hildy to remain in a life that uses all his instincts and makes him feel free. (The Front Page is a relic of a pre-feminist era in a way that His Girl Friday, with its tough-talking female reporter, isn’t; that distinction may have bothered some of the reviewers.)

The cast is almost too good to be true. Opposite John Goodman, playing Hartman as a glib moron (he pronounces “revelry” as “revell’-ery”), Dann Florek of TV’s Law and Order franchise is the mayor, whose anxiety is always political and who uses hapless Hartman as a punching bag. One of the show’s highlights is the scene where Mr. Pincus appears with the governor’s reprieve: Pincus is Robert Morse (another Mad Man alum) who carries a long and distinguished Broadway legacy. I first saw him as the tremulous, virginal Richard in Take Me Along, the musical of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, back in 1960, and I’ve never stopped being a fan. The three-step he executes with Florek and Goodman is faultless. John Magaro finds a loopy lyricism in Earl Williams, the gentle-souled anarchist with a dreamy smile on his face that makes you think of an animal in a Loony Toon who’s been smashed on the head with a frying pan. Sherie René Scott plays his only friend, the streetwalker Mollie Malloy, whom the press guys pick on mercilessly; rather than going for her hard-boiled quality, Scott makes Mollie surprisingly fragile – permanently on the verge of hysteria. Micah Stock, as the psychologizing cop Woodenshoes Eichhorn, talks very slowly, in a weird German accent that’s pure dialect comedy, and looks blank. When he crosses the stage he has a slightly uneven indolence, as if some of his hinges had come loose.

The veteran actress Patricia Conolly makes a sweet little number out of the part of Jennie the charlady. Danny Mastrogiorgio, in a pinstripe suit, is Diamond Louie, the Damon Runyon-esque thug who, for mysterious reasons, is at Walter’s beck and call; he gives his lines color and punch. Halley Feiffer manages to do something with the usually thankless role of Peggy Grant, Hildy’s put-upon fiancée. She works her long frame and her long legs and her long, rubbery face for comic effect, and her vocal affect – the way she has of turning vowels into tiny bubbles and holding onto the final consonants of her sentences and puncturing her lines with thin high notes when we don’t expect it – is charming. Ann Roth, for many years my favorite costume designer, comes up with the perfect skirt to hang on that frame. The hat she gives Holland Taylor as Peggy’s formidable mother, who turns out to be Walter’s pet target, looks like it might have started as a moose’s head. It’s so strange and ridiculous that you giggle whenever she walks onstage, and then in act three, when Walter quips that it looks like something from the Revolutionary War, it’s as if the hat had its own punch line. Taylor is good as usual: she hits Mrs. Grant’s fed-up lines square on, like a bowler who makes a strike every time.

And then there’s the chorus of reporters, and what a talented crew they are. Jefferson Mays is the finicky germophobe Bensinger, driven half-mad by the casual sloppiness of his fellows and their insistence on using his desk – the rolltop that plays such a crucial role in the farce – as a combination locker and garbage bin. I’ve never seen a funnier Bensinger, not even Edward Everett Horton in the 1931 movie. (The pièce de résistance of his performance is a bit with an umbrella at the end of the second act.) Dylan Baker, as McCue, adopts a thin nasality and thrusts his head out like a lewd turtle to press any licentious question. Lewis J. Stadlen (Endicott) contributes his specialty, Brooklyn-Jewish deadpan; Joey Slotnick (Wilson) has a hyperactive comic-strip face and huge eyes. Christopher McDonald is Murphy, who takes special pleasure in tormenting Hartman (he reads off the details in his story, the ones he knows will piss the sheriff off, slowly, with a grin), and Clarke Thorell is Kruger, the relaxed, sleepy-eyed one with the banjo. You never get tired of watching these guys, singly or in a group.

Douglas W. Schmidt designed the vivid, highly functional set – a key visual element for this gleeful farce – and Brian MacDevitt lit it handsomely. The show is a beauty: a tribute to Hecht and MacArthur and to the comic character actor.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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