The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra column this week in which to report on the opening of the new Broadway revival of The Front Page. Here’s an excerpt from my review, which appeared on line last Friday.
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“The Front Page” is one of those “classic” American plays that is more talked about than performed. Nowadays it’s far better known as in its second film version, Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” in which the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur farce about a newspaper reporter and his exasperated boss was given a fresh spin in 1940 by turning the reporter into a woman. While “The Front Page” works fabulously well in that form, the play is a comic masterpiece in its own unromantic, hard-charging right, and the only reason why it isn’t mounted more often is that it calls for a huge cast—the original production fielded two dozen actors—which makes it prohibitively expensive to produce.
Why, then, has “The Front Page” now turned up on Broadway in a big-budget production directed by Jack O’Brien? Two words: Nathan Lane. Mr. Lane is one of the last remaining Broadway stars whose name on a marquée is guaranteed to sell tickets, and it was a stroke of commercial genius to cast him as Walter Burns, the scheming editor who’ll do anything to keep Hildy Johnson (John Slattery) on the job. So it’s a grievous disappointment to report that this much-anticipated revival is slack and lackluster, a case study in how to get a good play wrong….
The pacing is on the slow side and some of the performances are surfacey and undervitalized in a way you wouldn’t normally expect from the actors in question (John Goodman, who plays the hapless police chief, barely comes across at all). And while several other actors, Jefferson Mays, Robert Morse and Lewis J. Stadlen in particular, blast the bull’s-eye right out of the target, the cast as a whole feels like a random collection of talented performers, not a true ensemble.
As for Mr. Slattery, lately of “Mad Men,” his Hildy is a disaster, blandly likable but devoid of charisma….
Funny though it is, “The Front Page” is also a savagely honest portrait of shoe-leather journalism in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties, and it is this honesty that gives the play the enduring power that led David Mamet to rank it alongside “Our Town,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as one of the finest American plays of the 20th century (rightly, in my opinion). Most of the characters are reporters who will do absolutely anything to absolutely anybody to get a story, and it doesn’t faze them in the least when their machinations cause one of their desperate victims (Sherie Rene Scott) to jump out a window before their indifferent eyes. When I saw “The Front Page” staged in the round by Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre Company in 2011, I was never in any doubt of the reporters’ fundamental brutality, and the juxtaposition of their uncaring cynicism with the explosive comic dynamism of the plot made a fist-in-the-gut impression. Not here: Mr. O’Brien’s “Front Page” is played for laughs, not truth, and that’s why it falls so flat….
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Read the whole thing here.
A scene from the 1931 film version of The Front Page, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns and Pat O’Brian as Hildy Johnson:
The trailer for TimeLine Theatre Company’s 2011 revival of The Front Page: