NEW YORK — Stop those presses. The gleeful breaking news from the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street is that the expertly-seasoned revival of “The Front Page” is a mischievous newspaper bundle of earthy delights.
Working with a surefire farce of yore and a team of actors representing the deepest bench on Broadway — Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Dylan Baker and Robert Morse are among those on the squad — the production that had its official opening Thursday night crackles with old-school comic smarts. Count among these primo farceurs a splendid director, Jack O’Brien, who knows how to put an acting army 26 strong through the dizzying paces of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic piece of Americana.
If my prose sounds a tad breathless, it’s because I am indeed catching my breath, having segued directly from my seat to my laptop to write about the play. It was producer Scott Rudin’s notion to revive a now-ancient tradition for this 1928 comedy, set in the press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, of inviting all of the critics to the opening-night performance. Which gave those of us accepting the challenge the job of filing our review in a matter of an hour or two, rather than what has become the Broadway norm: attending a preview performance, days prior to opening night, and thereby having days to think about what to say.
So I left the theater feeling the rush of some exhilarating teamwork still coursing freshly through my brain. Floating up there most buoyantly is the impression of Lane’s priceless turn as Walter Burns — an editor so voraciously news hungry he could survive purely on a diet of scoops. In boxy pin-striped suit and bushy black mustache, Lane hurls Burns’s blunt-force insults and bolts of impotent rage in all directions, with the timing and élan that have made him one of the great comic actors of our age. Slattery, playing the roguish Hildy Johnson, Burns’ restive star reporter at the Chicago Examiner, reveals again the gift for the kind of swaggering masculinity he displayed as Roger Sterling on “Mad Men.” Mays and Baker, too, are deployed here to maximum enjoyable effect as a pair of courthouse reporters — Mays portraying a skittish germaphobe, Baker a diligent leg man.
The play revolves around the impending hanging of the nebbishy Earl Williams (a fine John Magaro) and the jailbreak that sends the press room denizens into a tizzy, among them Hildy, who is supposed to be quitting his job on the Examiner this very day to marry sweet and long-suffering Peggy (Halley Feiffer). It also provides an expansive canvas for a portrait of the gritty city journalism of the time, practiced by average working stiffs with much in common with the readers for whom they scavenged for stories. In addition, it is a satire of sleazy, provincial politics, the sort that allows local political parties to favor hacks like John Goodman’s oaf a sheriff and Dann Florek’s oily schemer of a mayor.
O’Brien capably keeps the machine and myriad working parts of “The Front Page” purring, although the early going is also the slowest-going. The opening sequence, in which we observe the reporters from half a dozen papers playing poker and gathering tidbits on the phone in set designer Douglas W. Schmidt’s majestically shabby press room, goes on at length; audiences in ’28 probably had more patience with the volume of character-establishing dialogue in which “The Front Page” luxuriates.
One glaring technical problem occurs after Magaro’s condemned escapee crashes through the press room window: the resulting mess and large broken window supposedly go unnoticed by the reporters who return, looking for Williams and suspicious about what Hildy is up to. (This is crucial to the plot because Hildy, seeking the exclusive of the century, hides Williams in a press room desk, in anticipation of writing the story about his capture.) Surely, if we can see that a window’s missing and even hear glass crunching under their feet, these newshounds can, too.
Some of the more offensive racial and sexist language rightly has been scrubbed from this version; a crude Act 1 joke, for instance, about the reporters losing interest in a double murder after discovering the race of those involved, has been rewritten. A surprising proportion of the remaining situational and character-driven humor is truly funny. Morse, playing a clueless courier; Florek, as the duplicitous mayor and Micah Stock, portraying a mournful schlub of a courthouse cop with a bizarre German accent, all take smashing advantage of their limited stage time. And Lewis J. Stadlen, Christopher McDonald, Holland Taylor and Sherie Rene Scott all add rewardingly to the various risible and melodramatic threads of the play.
Part of the pleasure on this evening, in fact, is waiting for that press room door to open yet again, to let in someone new who’s likely to make you laugh yet again. With Lane leading the charge, this production offers as much fun as you’re ever likely to have, courtesy of the First Amendment.
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The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Set, Douglas W. Schmidt; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Scott Lehrer; hair and makeup, Campbell Young and Luc Verschueren. With Sherie Rene Scott, Holland Taylor, Halley Feiffer, Danny Mastrogiorgio. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets, $77-$375. At Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.