By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
There’s little doubt that the nature of the ensemble cast of The Front Page could draw large audiences for the entirety of its strictly limited run on paper (pun intended). First, there’s Tony Award winners Nathan Lane and Jefferson Mays as headliners and New Orleanian and film and TV star John Goodman. Two of the stars of “Mad Men,” John Slattery and Robert Morse, have lead and feature roles, respectively, but there are 14 other players in this Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur opus.
There were questions about the 1928 script, written in three acts and whether the two intermissions would somehow spoil the pacing for modern audiences. While there is quite a bit of exposition in the first act, the action takes off in the second act and beyond once Lane hits his mark on stage.
The role of Walter Burns, editor of the Chicago Herald-Examiner, is a role that Lane is extremely suited to play. The quick pace of the dialog prior to his making an entrance is dizzying and once he appears, the veritable explosion of laughter that occurs is palpable. The heavy lifting of laughter aside, Lane embodies the swagger and demeanor of his crusty and scheming character.
“I don’t care about the Chinese earthquake,” he bellows. “They’re overpopulated anyway!” As Burns, Lane is contemptible in just about every way as he oils his way around the stage. The motivation of his character is only interested in getting an exclusive story, keeping his ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Slattery) at all costs and selling as many papers in the process.
As Johnson, Slattery is a hard living newspaper man with a heart, resigned to leaving the city news beat and spending connubial bliss with his fiancée Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor). But due to an unexpected turn of events, his true calling as a reporter emerges, as he tries to stay one step ahead of his colleagues, while eluding Sheriff Hartman (Goodman) the mayor (Dann Florek) and a number of unsavory characters pledged to do their biding.
Much of the action concerns the upcoming execution of convicted black cop killer Earl Williams (John Margaro), whom Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott) believes has been railroaded. Unwittingly aided in an escape by the incompetent sheriff, he is secreted away in a rollaway desk by Johnson while Burns plots to unveil the real motivation behind the mayor and sheriff’s actions.
As Tribune reporter Bensinger, Mays leads a troupe of veteran players of stage and screen as his fellow reporters, among them Dylan Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, Christopher McDonald, David Pittu and Joey Slotnick.
Although he makes far too short an appearance in the production, Morse as a dedicated civil servant, Mr. Pincus, has a pivotal and hilarious role in the final act.
Ably directed by multiple Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien, The Front Page, has nothing more than its own success to blame, if it seems predictable. Based on both their experiences in Chicago newsrooms, Hecht, who went on to become one of the more visible Zionists prior to the creation of the State of Israel, and his partner MacArthur, turned the original play into one of the Great White Way’s smash hits of 1928, running 278 performances. Since 1931 it has been turned into four feature films including a gender bender in His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson and a delightful Jack Lemmon-Walter Mathau romp in 1974.
Lane proves to be the spark that makes this show go, even if it does take time for it to gather momentum. Once it does get going, however, it’s like trying to stop a midnight run of the press. The best thing to do is stay out of the way of his comedic genius and enjoy the ride.
The Front Page, a play in three acts, runs 2 hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions. It continues in a strictly limited run at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. in New York City until January 29, 2017. Evening performances are at 8:00 p.m. (Thursdays are at 7:00 p.m.), while Wednesday and Saturday matinees are at 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees are held at 3:00 p.m.