"The Front Page"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
“The Front Page,” a fast-moving Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy/farce, brings back the era of the ‘20s. It is Chicago in the Jazz Age, replete with crime, cuties, and newsmen before they were called journalists. Gordon Edelstein, Long Wharf’s artistic director, has returned to the original 1928 Broadway show, bypassing the later, softer versions. In this highly entertaining piece, the hard-boiled reporters, the bumbling police, the corrupt politicians are all brought together in the courthouse press room, along with an assortment of other characters.
Granted this is a period play, in which no one hesitates to use the “n” word or bang out a story, real or invented, on an ancient Underwood. Yet it resonates surprisingly well for our own time. Corruption and ineptitude, it seems, is never out of date.
The story deals with one Hildy Johnson, the Chicago Examiner’s ace reporter, who plans to leave for New York with his girl, whom he will marry and where he will take on a lucrative advertising job. Meanwhile, the reporters in the press room wait out the scheduled hanging of a convicted murderer, one Earl Williams. If there’s no new angle to this story-of-the-day, they do not hesitate to invent new twists. Anything for the byline. Johnson stumbles on the real story, the great story, and, predictably, it takes precedence over his New York plans. What will happen with his fiancée, his marriage plans, his new career?
As with any good farce, timing is everything, and Edelstein, who has a gift for this kind of material, gets it just right. The pace never falters, as the runaway murderer hides in the roll-top desk, and Hildy goes through elaborate shenanigans to keep him hidden. Edelstein has assembled a fine ensemble, and while it is unfair to single out performances in this team effort, several must be mentioned. Bob Ari and Jeff Steitzer, as the Mayor and Sheriff respectively, are hilarious, as is Hildy’s unconscionable editor, played by Jeff McCarthy. As Hildy, Chris Henry Coffey gives a strong, personable performance, though he must work against physical type to fit in with his seedy counterparts. He is just too handsome and dapper for this role. Alyssa Bresnahan, as the tart, explodes on stage in her brief opening scene, bringing the show to another level. And, finally, a word about the newsmen themselves, a rag-tag collection that brings to mind Damon Runyon’s Broadway characters.
Though our modern audiences are unused to three-act, two-intermission shows, and could conceivably grow restless, this never happens. Hecht and MacArthur were skilled writers with newspaper backgrounds who knew what they were about, combining their skills with their love for the profession. As they have acknowledged, “The Front Page” was a Valentine to their own pasts.
They just don’t write them like this any more! Too bad.
-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 13, 2006