BWW Review: Nathan Lane and John Slattery Lead A Raucously Funny Revival Of THE FRONT PAGE
Bright bursts of light imitating the effects of flash powder photography capture the opening and closing images of all three acts of director Jack O'Brien's raucously good revival of the classic 1928 comedy, The Front Page.
In between, a terrific cast bangs out the gritty, wise-cracking dialogue of newspapermen turned playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur with the precision of freshly greased keys striking at the platen of a Royal typewriter.
Douglas W. Schmidt's soul-suckingly drab unit set places the piece at the press room of Chicago's Criminal Courts Building, with large picture windows overlooking the gallows of the Cook County Jail. A great collection of character actors, including Lewis J. Stadlen, Dylan Baker, David Pittu, Joey Slotnick, Clarke Thorell and Christopher McDonald, play the reporters who compete at cards and banter after-hours as they wait for the morning's scheduled hanging of a white anarchist who has been found guilty of killing a black police officer. (Casual racist and sexist talk from the original has been softened, but not completely eliminated.) Those in the know smell a set-up by a mayor making a last-minute pitch to ensure his re-election.
This is initially of little concern to ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Slattery), who's decided to give up the newspaper racket and is taking a redeye train to New York to start a new life with his fiancé Peggy (Halley Feiffer). But when a startling twist in the case occurs, Hildy is called upon to accept one last investigative assignment and, in another twist, the scoop of the year winds up in his lap.
Slattery's jaunty Hildy is the grounding conscience of the evening, as his desire to uncover the truth (and receive a bit of glory for it) battles his desire to start anew with the frustrated Peggy, whose haughty mother (Holland Taylor) demands his cooperation.
As Hildy's ruthless managing editor, Nathan Lane's presence is only experienced as a bellowing voice on the telephone for the first half of the play. Once he appears in the flesh, his flourishing comedic energy commands every moment for the rest of the evening. Lane is a master at finding the vocal inflections and cadences that discover humor without sacrificing realism and at one point he contributes a show-stopping bit of physical business.
There's an especially funny scene where Lane is matched with Jefferson Mays, who plays a prissy, germophobic reporter who embellishes his articles with his own sappy poetry. The pair share a crackling chemistry and display solid teamwork in drawing out laughs.
Also displaying fine teamwork are John Goodman as a numbskull sheriff and Dann Florek as the slickly corrupt mayor. They share the stage with the beloved Robert Morse, who makes the most of his brief time as a lovably dim courier who arrives with an inconvenient delivery at the worst possible time.
As prostitute Mollie Malloy, who has a soft spot for the condemned fellow, Sherie Rene Scott sheds the airy comic style she's known for and teeters between hard-as-nails and emotionally fragile. Patricia Conolly scores nicely in her small role as a put-upon cleaning lady and Micah Stock is fascinatingly funny as a German-accented police officer determined to share his social theories with anyone present.
As complications build into a tizzy, O'Brien's staging races to a frantic conclusion and one of the American theatre's most glorious curtain lines. This is satisfying old-school, muscular comedy done right.