Review by Kathleen Campion
The Playbill cover photo is an engaging shot of John Slattery and Nathan Lane, tricked out in hats and vested suits, exchanging some of Hecht’s and MacArthur’s period patter. Their eyes are locked; each is grinning. Moments like this, the one-to-one exchanges between and among the three principals — Lane, Slattery, and the newly slender John Goodman — are rich and pithy and often funny. They are also often so broad and predictable as to be eye-rolling. I’m not sure they are enough to keep you riveted for three acts, especially because you have to wait till act two to lay eyes on Nathan Lane.
The Front Page has a good deal of energy — the huge cast rockets around the one room set. Eight reporters from Chicago’s heyday dailies each have a defining schtick, and they bounce off one another with the rhythm of familiarity. A singular flash effect opens and closes each act and wears surprisingly well.
You can almost smell the cigar smoke and old-socks perfume of Douglas Schmidt’s press room, its girlie pictures and battered stand up phones reek of authenticity. The lumbering exterior architecture puts you smack in the reporters’ den of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building 1928, as the reporters await news of the condemned man and his imminent hanging. The script wonderfully underscores the arrogance of the press, the cravenness of the pols, and the pitiful ineptitude of the anarchist. It is a comedy about newspapermen — their foibles showcased to be sure, but they’re meant to be the worthy creatures of the tale.
John Goodman, playing a craven pol, the sheriff charged with getting the hanging underway, “had me at hello” as they say. He even enters funny. That said, in this production, we don’t get much more than a Yosemite Sam character from him. What is riveting is Goodman’s weight loss, by some reports he’s lost more than 100 pounds. As a consequence, he moves and stands differently and your eye is drawn to him.
John Slattery’s cast as Hildy Johnson, a hard-bitten, underhanded, take-no-prisoners hack. His moments with Nathan Lane are small diamonds in a rhinestone wash of a show. It’s hard not to like Slattery — handsome and quick — but somehow you just don’t buy him as the gritty, tough guy Hildy’s meant to be.
Nathan Lane — what’s left to say? His Walter Johnson is manic and noisy, crude and infuriating. He plays Walter very broadly but nobody does broad better. If, one day, Nathan Lane is accused of “calling it in,” I’d argue that, even when he does fall back on his sack of tricks — his nonverbal exasperation, the little sigh I first noticed in The Birdcage, the slow burn — it’s like visiting old friends and it works for me every time.
The production feels long. I found myself wondering if audiences between the wars were more patient. This is a show with many good moments, but you do have to pay the piper with your patience.
As The Front Page rolled on, I sat in the dark reminding myself that this is a period piece, written in 1928 reflecting all the misogyny and bigotry of that era. Perhaps it is this era’s rancid election year discourse that makes this tale from a more innocent time seem particularly crass, as it reduces women to body parts and honors the virgin/whore delineation of half the planet.
The Front Page – Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; Directed by Jack O’Brien
With: Nathan Lane (Walter Burns), John Slattery (Hildy Johnson), John Goodman (Sheriff Hartman), Jefferson Mays (Bensinger), Sherie Rene Scott (Molly Malloy), Christopher McDonald (Murphy) , Holland Taylor (Mrs. Grant), Robert Morse (Mr. Pincus), Dylan Baker (McCue), Patricia Conolly (Jennie), Halley Feiffer (Peggy Grant), Dann Florek (The Mayor), John Magaro (Earl Williams), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Diamond Louie), David Pittu (Schwartz), Joey Slotnick (Wilson), Lewis J. Stadlen (Endicott), Micah Stock (Woodenshoes Eichhorn), and Clarke Thorell (Kruger).
Designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, costumes by Ann Roth, Lighting by Brian MacDevitt, sound by Scott Lehrer. Presented by Scott Rudin and Eli Bush at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street in Manhattan through January 29th. Running time 2hrs and 45 minutes with two intervals.