THEATER REVIEW: Jack O’Brien’s The Front Page Is a Journey in Lost Style

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Nathan Lane in The Front Page (Broadhurst Theatre, New York)

An undeniable—and, these days, rare—thrill runs through the audience when the curtains open at The Front Page. Everything about this 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is big: Douglas Schmidt’s set (a dingy press room in Chicago’s grand Criminal Courts building), the show’s length (three acts / three hours), and most of all, the cast (I count 26 actors in the company). You might still see something comparable in a new musical, but straight plays of this scale have all but disappeared. Directing this revival is Jack O’Brien, a master of large format theater. O’Brien has particular expertise in historical plays and settings, which he realizes with taste and nuance.

In other words, all signs point to success. But while this high-budget, high-energy revival is never less than entertaining, it’s rarely more than that.  Why not?

There’s the script, for starters. In some ways, it has aged much better than most others from this period, retaining both a still-good plot and still-crackling dialogue. The Front Page is a comedy—at times, bordering on slapstick—yet the motivating action (an imminent execution, with a room full of rival, hard-bitten newsmen trying to scoop the story) is grim.

Today, the humor has worn thin, while the darkness feels truer than ever—but the balance in the script favors the former. I wonder if it hadn’t already dated by 1940, when Hecht and a different collaborator, Charles Lederer, wrote the film adaptation. His Girl Friday is a classic that remains vivid today (I know—I saw it again a few months ago). Though it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, it’s worth noting that the movie’s considerable revisions (changing one leading character from male to female; shortening the running time by nearly half) are significant improvements. And, of course, there’s Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in epochal, style-defining performances.

The acting here might also be expected to carry this Front Page.  John Slattery should be great—the drily cynical, detached quality and cooler-than-ice persona he used in Mad Men should be perfect for Hildy Johnson. But O’Brien has done him a disservice by loading on the stage business. Slattery enters, talking all the while, and proceeds to also change his clothes on stage. Soon, he already looks flushed; by the final curtain, he’s hoarse and sweaty. It’s a committed, thorough performance—but not one that looks effortless, as it must. (What O’Brien does very well here is find the focus in each scene, keeping a constant stream of background action while managing to move the central actors into the spotlight.)

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John Slattery and Nathan Lane in The Front Page (Broadhurst Theatre, New York)

Nathan Lane, as always, is a law onto himself.  He delivers a masterclass in comic line readings and moues, every moment calculated and played for maximum effect. It’s brilliant, but it’s always Nathan Lane-as-Walter-Burns, and never integrates with the rest of the show. (Critical to the play’s given circumstances is the idea that Burns and Johnson share a long, complicated history—Slattery and Lane look like a couple of celebrities enjoying each other’s company.)

In fact, that sense of celebrity is this production’s final undoing.  With plays of this type and vintage, it’s become the preferred mode to cast them with well-known actors even in small roles.  I’ve seen it done in Broadway’s last You Can’t Take It with You revival, and it was also a feature of a truly wretched Light Up the Sky I saw nearly three decades ago in Los Angeles.  (At that time, I dubbed the practice “celebrity morgue revivals.”)

The ensemble here is more stellar than most—in addition to Lane and Slattery, we also have John Goodman, Robert Morse, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, Dylan Baker, Dan Florek… the list goes on.  It’s fun to recognize famous actors, of course.

But for that same reason, we never believe them as these characters. Among the cameos here, few really deliver (though I did enjoy seeing Robert Morse as Mr. Pincus, the visiting drunk, milking every drop from what is intended to be a stand-alone bit.)  Instead, my eye was drawn continually to Clarke Thorell and Danny Mastrogiorgio. These two estimable actors are not as familiar faces as the others; but here, they alone seem like real-life newsmen in search of a life and death story.


The Front Page plays at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway through January 29. For more information, visit the website.

 

 

Categories: Criticism, New York, Theater

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2 replies »

  1. It seems to me there should have been an “additional dialogue by” credit. In the original script, one does not hear Walter’s side of the phone conversations; that was a technique that came in with the talkies. And whose idea was it to change Hildy’s “I could snort a better story out of my nose than you could ever write” to the even cruder and jarrigly anachronistic “I could PULL A BETTER STORY OUT OF MY ASS than you could ever write”?

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