New York City Theater
"The Front Page"
What is it about Nathan Lane? It’s not just the timing, the energy, the physicality, the familiarity. What makes him the genius actor he is? Exploding onto the stage at the end of Act II, in the funny, gets-better-as-it-goes revival of the vitriolic “The Front Page,” he makes every gesture, every word, every look into a ballet of unforgettable grace. He’s our Victor Moore, our Bobby Clark, our Bert Lahr, for sure. But, even more than those memorable clowns, he’s also the epitome of actors who operate from a combination of instinct and technique, promising spontaneity – and delivering.
Written in 1928 by two onetime newshounds, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, “The Front Page” is the tough story about grasping, cynical reporters, hard-boiled eggs who’d run over their mothers for a scoop. Lane is Walter Burns, editor of the Chicago Examiner. When his ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), decides to chuck his job and, with his bride-to-be, head for a more lucrative, less stressful gig in New York, Burns will do anything to keep him on, larceny and perjury included. (That Slattery, late of “Mad Men,” will go into advertising is a great inside joke.)
A lucky break for the paper comes with the escape of about-to-be-hanged anarchist killer, Earl Williams. By chance, he crashes through the window into the grungy press room when only Hildy is around. Hildy and Burns, not above suppressing evidence, try to figure out how to hide Williams long enough to file an exclusive story on his capture.
Throw in a crooked mayor, an incompetent sheriff, a battling battle-axe mother-in-law, a cheap streetwalker, a bedraggled messenger, a pretentious cop with an undeterminable accent and, of course, a rowdy bunch of newshounds – described as “a lot of crumby hoboes, full of dandruff and bum gin” -- and you have the makings of fast-paced hilarity. True, contemporary theater has moved on from the exposition-heavy first acts that used to be de rigueur. The three-act play, with its climactic structure, is an anomaly as are large casts.
Thus, it’s a pleasure to be entertained by such a dinosaur these days, even if the first act drags, even if this production really erupts only on Lane’s late Act II entrance.
Any production that can boast celebrated actors in minor roles must be doing something right. Here are Dylan Baker, Patricia Conoly and Lewis J. Stadlen, excellent actors billed beneath the title. Jefferson Mays is spot-on as a sissy journalist (gays, blacks and Jews are objects of bigotry). Also terrific are Sheri Rene Scott’s tough tart, Micah Stock’s bumbling cop, Robert Morse’s giddy bearer of good tidings, Dann Florek‘s bullying mayor and John Magaro’s whining yet oddly sympathetic Earl Williams.
On Douglas W. Schmidt’s humongous set, some characters get lost, not helped, in Act I especially, by Jack O’Brien’s unfocused and slow-paced direction. Slattery does not have the machine-gun delivery of the other characters and is too refined to be the “lusty, hoodlumesque” figure described in the script. Nor is John Goodman believable as the sheriff. Both seem uncomfortable.
But the evening eventually barrels along, growing increasingly irreverent and antic. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Nathan Lane, nor would you want to. He can make leaning slightly backwards in fake shock into a moment both hard-boiled and vivacious. Talk about a national treasure.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 5, 2016