An affection-streaked paean to journalism, indeed a raucous celebration of the trade at its most venal and exploitative, may seem wildly out of time in so many ways--still more when its plot is centered around securing a scoop interview with a white anarchist accused of killing a black policeman.
But the new Broadway adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 play The Front Page succeeds in convincing us of the gleeful disorder of newsgathering, not because of the play itself--which feels flat for significant stretches--but Nathan Lane, who gives a marvelously monstrous performance as Walter Burns, editor of the Herald-Examiner.
At a time when there is such suspicion of journalism, and where a presidential candidate makes clear his antipathy to the concept of a free press, it should raise at least a wry smile that there is not just a pro-journalism play on Broadway, but one which proposes that all of what its detractors hate most about journalism are the very things that made and make it great.
Lane's nasty growl is only heard at the end of the telephone until midway through the second of three acts (the evening is around two hours and 45 minutes long), and so--in the first act--there is a lot of sludgy exposition and backchat in the play's setting of the press room of Chicago's Criminal Courts Building.
Douglas W. Schmidt's set design really does evoke a ink-stained fleapit of ambition, smarts, put-downs, and admiration.
In its musky four walls (and windows--soon to be spectacularly shattered), a motley crew of newsmen from the city's papers gather to gossip, compete, and evaluate the stories being phoned in.
Anything you would recognize as what makes a juicy story today--sexy killers, sexy victims, with as much cheap scandal layered on top of that--applied then too. The hottest story of the moment is the imminent hanging of anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro).
Jefferson Mays as Bensinger is the evening's first starry appearance: an effete germ-phobe, his peers' coarseness upsets him; he cleans the telephone he must use and the waste paper bin.
Mad Men's John Slattery is a restrained Hildy Johnson, the most charismatic journalist of the bunch, who--it gets his biggest laugh--is considering leaving the industry to take up a job in New York in advertising. It is Hildy who tells his colleagues that their trade is for nothing, and they too are slaving away for not much. It is time to get out.
There was an extra sharpness to listening to his disillusion (doubtful as it would prove), and embrace of imminent career change, on a day when the Wall Street Journal announced it was seeking a number of journalists to take a "substantial number" of buyouts in order to limit the number of involuntary layoffs.
There is no sense of decline in The Front Page, just of an unfettered media able and willing to exploit any human misery and extremity for headlines and copy. There is also official corruption, with the mayor (Dann Florek, an excellent composite of sleaze, charm and brute) conspiring with a fizzing John Goodman as Sheriff Hartman to have Williams executed, in order to shore up black votes. Race, despite being at the heart of the play, is only referred to fleetingly. There are no black characters.
The mayor’s plot has one weak link, a gentleman named Pincus (another ex-Mad Man, Robert Morse), who stymies their plot through eccentricity and infirmity, and is a disruptive joy to watch.
Absurdity layers upon absurdity with the arrival of Hildy's fiancee, Peggy (Halley Feiffer), and her mother (Holland Taylor), and with a desperate prostitute Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott).
Taylor plays a great battleaxe, but is on stage too briefly, and the other women are painted thinly as goodly-firm and a morally-centered prostitute; the abusive words and threats of violence spat against Malloy ring particularly nastily and off-key today. The women of The Front Page are vexations and impediments, to be dismissed and insulted.
Director Jack O'Brien's solution to all these bum notes and odd highways and byways in mounting the play in 2016 seems to be to play up the slapstick as much as possible--and this is realized best by a wonderful scene in which Bensinger is hustled off stage before he discovers what Hildy is hiding.
Fun as all this and other moments of furious screwball posturing are, it feels a lot of noise and fuss built around not that much, and the meandering sludginess is only really offset by Lane, a verbal and physical flamethrower, spewing threats, malevolence, and a determination that Hildy and he secure their scoop of an exclusive interview with Williams, even if that means locking the latter in a writing desk, and possibly killing Mrs. Grant.
Slattery can only say his lines dutifully, as the evening transforms into 'The Nathan Lane Show.' The audience laps up his amoral mischief, and a Tony nomination is surely likely.
Neither Burns, nor Hildy, or indeed The Front Page as a whole, makes a resonant or even halfway-serious case for journalism. This is a nostalgia piece, and really about untrammeled male bonding: Burns and Hildy have managed to make a lucrative business out of their need for one another, and now Burns cannot let Hildy go.
Viewed from the perspective of today--with journalism under siege by market forces and hostile politicians and all those who would prevent journalists from exposing corruption--The Front Page is a romantic snow-globe. The stakes seem simpler; a day at work is also a day of play.
The sword of truth is wielded here just because that's what journalists and journalism do--not with piety or social good in mind, but to sell papers, to find the next scoop, to nail corruption because nailing corruption makes for good headlines. The only object is to make the front page.
Every story is the next biggest story, and the journalists of The Front Page will do all they can to ace their competitors and themselves. That rings the most familiar bell. The journalism may have looked different in 1928--and people are being jettisoned from the profession now, not leaving by choice like Hildy--but that hungry journalistic impulse, the addiction even, remains eternal.
The Front Page is at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. Book tickets here.