Tuesday, October 25, 2016

LIZ SMITH: The Front Page

It is to Nathan Lane that “The Front Page” belongs. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"The Front Page" Delivers Broadway's Fastest, Funniest Headline, and Nathan Lane at his most Brilliant!

“TO HELL with the Chinese earthquake!  I don’t care if a million died.  They’re over populated anyway.  No! Leave the rooster story alone.  That’s human interest.”

Those words, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, uttered by Nathan Lane, come about 92 minutes into the latest revival of 1928’s “The Front Page” at New York's Broadhurst Theatre.

This is the classic fast-talking tale of callous reporters, crooked politicians, men facing the noose, women dismissed, antique race relations and a great deal of talk about “The Red Menace.” 
THIS is not your mother’s “The Front Page.”  Mom probably saw the 1974 movie version directed by Billy Wilder.

Or, if mom is of a certain age, she likely loved the striking 1940 screen adaption which featured the amazing sex-change of the prime character, ambitious male reporter, Hildy Johnson into crackerjack Rosalind Russell, a woman as hard-boiled and fast-talking as any man. (The title was changed to “His Girl Friday” and in its witty subversion, it remains in some ways the best version of the play.)
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's 1974 version of “The Front Page.” 
Nope, this is your grandmother’s “The Front Page” seen now, as it was first produced — more or less — almost a century ago.  The play transformed a great deal about pacing and dialogue — the show became something of a standard and blueprint for screwball comedy.
Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson (with Cary Grant as Walter Burns) in “His Girl Friday."
And while certain bits creak slightly — especially during a long establishing first act, that doesn’t establish much, and could have used some judicious pruning, “The Front Page” remains remarkably funny; even in its pre-World War II attitudes, somehow modern and accessible. (The racism and misogyny are careless and matter-of-fact, rather than malicious. The audience seemed to be surprised, but more like, “Hmmmm ... men really haven’t changed much, have they, all by themselves.”)

The frequent references to Russia and the “Red Menace” might have received bigger laughs ten years ago.  But given our apparent deteriorating relations with the former Soviet Union, these remarks have more than a frisson of immediacy.
NOBODY quite knows where the phrase “ink-stained wretches” first appeared.  It has been variously attributed to Samuel Johnson, Will Rogers and Mark Twain, among others.  Alexander Woollcott and even Chaucer have been cited. One researcher suggests the words go back as far as the use of papyrus!

No matter.  It’s rarely used as a compliment to newspaper men.  And the full, profane, heartless — and hilarious — example of the description came to ultimate fruition in “The Front Page,” where nary a nice guy meets a deadline.
SET in the grimy press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, an even more grimy and cynical group of tabloid reporters gather to await the execution of cop killer Earl Williams (played appealingly by John Magaro.) Nobody cares about his death or his life.  They just hope for a possible scoop and to get out and go to dinner.

All except Hildy Johnson (handsome and youthfully energetic John Slattery) who declares he’s quitting this rotten business to move, and marry his sweetheart. 
John Slattery and Nathan Lane are reporter Hildy Johnson and editor Walter Burns in "The Front Page." Photo: Julieta Cervantes
There is one character who cares about Earl — Mollie Malloy, a prostitute who befriended him briefly before his arrest. By turns emotionally shattered but steely, she rages again the exaggerations the press men have painted of her relationship with Williams. Mollie also feels deeply, sympathetically sad that a man whom she considers “out of his head” is going to the gallows. (Sherie Rene Scott gives this beat-up but feisty working girl more dignity than the script allows.)
Sherie Rene Scott takes in a rare quiet moment on opening night.
Complications arise.

Honestly, that’s the best way to describe the rapidly unfolding action — after Act One — and the rapid-fire dialogue that overlaps at a breathless pace.  It’s complicated.  (For one thing, the cast features 26 characters; at a certain point, they are all onstage at the same time.)

One unbelievable situation tumbles upon another. Each major character has his or her own “aria” — from Jefferson Mays as the prissy germaphobe, Bensinger (who, from a slight distance resembles Nathan Lane) ... Dan Florek as Chicago’s Mayor, desperate to be reelected, and rather adorable in his phrase-making and sweeping dictums (Dan seems very much relieved to be away from barking orders via his various “Law & Order” stints) ... John Goodman as the bloviating sheriff ... legendary Robert Morse as the derelict Mr. Pincus ... Micah Stock as a cop obsessed with the psychology of crime, who employs an accent and enunciation that beggars description but the stops the show every time he opens his mouth.
John Goodman with Christopher McDonald, Dylan Baker and Clarke Thorell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Nathan Lane, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Michael X. Martin and Holland Taylor. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
There’s also Halley Feiffer as Hildy’s fiancé Peggy and Holland Taylor as Peggy’s exasperated, much-abused mother.

In Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s world, women get rather short shrift, so it is pleasant to report that under the circumstances, Feiffer and Taylor don’t lose their bite in this sea of angry white men with giant egos, screaming at each other. (It is particularly delicious to see the elegant Miss Taylor hoisted, protesting, out of the newsroom, when she sees more than is good for her.)
Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, John Slattery, Nathan Lane, and John Goodman taking their bows on the opening night of "The Front Page." Photo: © David Gordon
I HAVE saved the very best for last.  By the time Nathan Lane, as the vulgar Chicago Examiner editor Walter Burns appears, breathing fire and insults, “The Front Page” has already ignited. (There is a spectacular bit of business concerning Bensinger, his umbrella, and a lengthy exit that is simply dazzling.)

But, if “The Front Page” was ten times as good as it is, Nathan Lane’s presence would have — as it does — elevate the show to something transcendent.

I have raved for so many years about Nathan in so many productions it’s difficult to come up with something new.
Nathan Lane and John Goodman. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
The man is a genius, a national treasure, an actor who so totally inhabits his role that he joyfully fills every nook and cranny of the theater.  From the moment Nathan appears, each word and gesture brought hysterical laughter. People were wiping their eyes, falling sideways into the aisles, laughing so hard, onstage lines were lost in the happy hubbub. (I suggest seeing it twice, to catch what you might have lost, in the cacophony of guffaws.) 

If you have any connection to the newspaper or magazine business, you’ll love it when Lane screams in frustration at Hildy, who is desperately trying to get his scoop written: “What’s this?! Where’s the news. The second paragraph? Who reads the second paragraph?!!”
This is one of the most complete performances I have ever seen.  It is impossible to take your eyes off Nathan, in fear of missing a gesture an expression, some astonishing bit of body language. (His attempt to move a heavy desk all but generated a standing ovation right there!)

I give high marks to the fantastic frenetically-paced direction of Jack O’ Brien, the somehow-sepia-toned set design of Douglas W. Schmidt, the marvelous costumes by Ann Roth, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting. And the excellent sound of Scott Lehrer (Lehrer is especially vital, in a show where the dialogue comes faster and more furious than many Broadway audiences have ever experienced!)

But, it is to Nathan Lane that “The Front Page” belongs. Go see this show because it is real theater.  Go because it is real theater history! Go because you will be compelled to pay attention.  Go because there are no cheap thrills, just talent.  And, go, please go, to see what is assuredly the best male comic performance on Broadway right now. (Now and forever, as they say in “Cats”?)

Nathan Lane, keep on keeping on, being a genius.  Because boy, do we need you now!
P.S. Tomorrow I will give you a few salient tidbits from the big after party at Sardi’s.

Contact Liz here.