Except that with Nathan Lane in a key role The Front Page is likely to be a sell-out, there is no earthly reason to revive the play in the Twenty-First Century. At three acts, it is an act too long and the text is stuck in its time, shamefully misogynistic and stereotypical. It doesn’t really have anything to say about the media and while it is funny when Lane is in full swing – and then it is very funny – it is more creaky curiousity piece than Broadway hit.
Perhaps the clue was on the billboards outside Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre where Charles MacArthur (Mr Helen Hayes) and Ben Hecht’s The Front Page is now playing. The old-fashioned static billboards all carry quotes from the original 1928 Broadway production; one video screen, high above street level, scrolls through relentlessly enthusiastic and glowing reviews of the current revival, helmed by Jack O’Brien.
The effect is to suggest a kind of time capsule production, but one with glamour appeal for the 21st Century. Certainly, the role call of stars suggests something momentous: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, Robert Morse, Micah Stock. There are 26 actors in the company, more performers than in any other Broadway production of a drama in recent memory – an excitement all of its own.
This is a play in three Acts. It is clear, crystal clear, that in 1928, it would have been almost revolutionary, certainly at least ground-breaking. Petty political corruption, foul mouthed office banter, criminal activities of newspaper editors, racist law enforcement, misogynist (mostly) white male elites, raw real dialogue – singly, these elements would have then been startling; together they must have been positively intoxicating, bracing and extremely liberating – not to mention funny and shocking.
But time has marched on. Audiences are more than familiar with the machinations of newspapers or newsrooms from vehicles as diverse as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Network, State of Play, Pravda, All The President’s Men, Spotlight and The Newsroom. The Front Page no longer has anything surprising to offer an audience.
At least, as far as the writing goes.
The first Act is almost entirely superfluous now. Nothing really happens except that you learn that the John Slattery character, Hildy Johnson, is retiring from the world of newspapers to plunge into marriage and a new career in advertising. And you learn that Johnson’s boss, Walter Burns, is a vicious, cantankerous take-no-prisoners type who will stop at nothing, literally nothing, to get a good Front Page story. The sounds of Nathan Lane’s voice on a telephone make you desperate to see him on stage.
Otherwise, the entire first Act is about scene setting and letting an audience into a world about which, in 1928, they knew nothing. Overlapping conversations, tough guy speak, nasty pranks, desperate oneupmanship – all very well if that is not what you expect from an all white male newsroom, but if you don’t expect that in 2016 you might need to check that you have a pulse.
There is no doubting the skill of the actors who combine their talents to push through Act One, but it is a largely thankless task. Today, Act One is boring, has nothing really to contribute and could be effortlessly cut to about ten minutes and still tell an audience all it needs to know. If Hecht and MacArthur were delivering this play for the first time now, it would be dramatically cut before it was even given its first reading.
There is nothing poetical or lyrical about the dialogue either, so there is nothing of that sort to justify its retention like holy writ. It is cracking dialogue and for the most part brisk and brutal, easily conveying character and situation. Indeed, the economy of the writing is very admirable in many respects.
But, equally, sections of the play are undeniably expositional and old-fashioned and these do drag, fatally undermining both comic and dramatic momentum. This is true of all three acts, but it is most egregious in the first Act.
O’Brien makes the myriad of characters discernible in clear ways and you can’t fault the sense of period and character he brings to the piece. Nor can you fault the way he manipulates the audience to be on Burns’ side, despite Burns flagrantly ignoring basic decency and the law at pretty much every turn. That O’Brien can make a modern audience laugh at the notion of an older woman being kidnapped and possibly killed, by white males, strangers to her, just to get her out of the way of one of Burns’ schemes is a singular achievement. Partly that has to do with the skill of Lane, Holland Taylor (the arch mother-in-law-to-be of Johnson) and Slattery.
But O’Brien’s skill is more far reaching than that. He permits Jefferson Mays to create a whiny hypochondriac who is effete, prissy and delightfully obtuse; it’s a complete and joyful comic absurdity. Equally, Micah Stock is wonderfully bizarre as a German/Dutch/definitely European-of-some-kind-officer-of-the-law, an almost bovine would-be Sherlock Holmes with a terrific line in lugubrious physicality, a detailed and fussy persona (watch his carefully choreographed exits carefully) and a deft comic foible treasure trove. If there was a Tony Award for best accent it would surely go to Stock.
But, it is not all smooth sailing. John Goodman is miscast and poorly directed as the hapless, hopeless Sheriff Hartman. He is vaguely Foghorn Leghorn, but the strength and savageness of which Goodman is clearly capable, not to mention the manic mischievousness he can so readily bring into play, are sadly absent here. His Hartman is a shadow of what Goodman can offer. This was especially grievous given Michael X Martin (standing in for Dann Florek) was so tiresome as the Mayor, a role that screams for malice of the Goodman kind. Goodman did his best, which is better than many an actor’s worst, but his best was insufficient here.
Taylor makes a great splash as Mrs Grant, and there is something genuinely appealing in seeing her shattered imperious self-regard after she is so badly treated by Lane’s Burns. She manages the physical schtick very well too. It is sheer delight to see Robert Morse goofing around on stage, with the echoes of his Tony award winning turn as J Pierrepoint Finch reverberating with each affected grimace or stare. As genial old duffers go, few are as sprightly and loveable as Morse’s reprieve-delivering old soak Mr Pincus. John Magaro did what he could with the plot device that was Earl Williams, the character around whom the whole story turns but rarely engages.
Sherie Rene Scott was overdone and intensely irritating as Mollie Malloy (a thankless part as written, probably unplayable today); Halley Feiffer left no trace as Peggy Grant, Johnson’s intended (not nearly radiant enough to be believable as a lure away from the world of print journalism); and Dylan Baker, Patricia Connolly and Danny Mastrogiorgio were wasted on roles that they played well enough but all of which amounted to nothing.
As Johnson, Slattery was merely adequate, never really displaying the verve and brio that the role requires. He was really too old for Feiffer’s Peggy, but that was more an issue about her casting than his; he is fit and amiable enough to make that pairing possible, but the lack of intense passion on her part rendered that aspect of the plot all but risible. He was hampered, too, by the childish shenanigans that Johnson engages in during Act One (hurtling items out of windows and generally behaving like a feckless university student on graduation) – yet another reason to cut that Act severely.
That said, his performance in Acts Two and Three was more accomplished as his scenes there depended more on interactions with Lane, Mays and Goodman. He rattled off the dialogue like a seasoned farceur, with energy and style. His reference of joining the world of advertising brought down the house – a meta moment indebted to Mad Men; a laugh the authors would never have expected.
In the end though, nothing else matters in The Front Page apart from Nathan Lane’s blustering bravura turn as Burns, a walrus warhorse of whopping ego, intellect and cunning. Carefully choreographed so that his reveal to the audience does not disrupt an important speech, Lane owns the stage from the second Burns is in the spotlight. He takes all of the attention all of the time – and thank heavens he does.
For, truly, there is only one point in reviving The Front Page – and that is to see what a gifted comic actor can make of the Walter Burns role. Lane disappoints in no way. It is a genius performance, supple, subtle and unsubtle, and fiercely funny. It is magical to hear him say the sentences, giving emphasis to unlikely words, carving unexpected cadences and rhythms in the speeches to maximise understanding and laughs.
Using his face like a pot of clay, Lane can carve fearsome glares, soothing ripples, beguiling smiles, carnivorous stares, brutish, bruising vistas and baby-bottom smooth charm or effrontery. He can manipulate his features as adroitly and expressively as a ballet dancer can dance – it is phenomenal to watch, almost unbearably joyful to experience.
Lane is a master of physical comedy too. There is a moment with a writing desk that is blissfully, sublimely funny; a moment that really only Lane could pull off – understand, defeated and yet exhilaratingly silly. His verbal assaults are symphonies, every insult savoured and delivered with maximum trifle-in-face impact. His performance here is another masterclass in comic perfection. He should be hard, if not impossible, to beat in the 2017 Tony Awards.
The set design by Douglas W. Schmidt is a triumph of 1920’s nostalgia. The detail in the newsroom is delightful, even down to the offensive girly posters on the interior of the men’s room. Ann Roth’s costumes are quite divine, a sea of old worlde brown and beige, with the odd hint of rampant colour. Brian McDevitt’s lighting is assiduous and exact, and there is no denying the satisfying effect achieved by the flash photography moment which heralds the start and finish of each Act. When the action flags, the detail in the design always provides a respite.
There are some terrific set piece moments of real joy: the startling break-out by the condemned man; Scott’s truly alarming final exit; Mays’ reaction to Lane’s unconscious spitting; Taylor’s bodily removal from the stage; Goodman’s involuntary confession and subsequent location of the missing convict Williams. These and many other moments in the second and third Acts reveal careful direction and flawless delivery of comic routines.
This is a play that is not worth reviving, but O’Brien’s production elevates it to two star status. Lane’s extraordinary performance accounts for the rest.