Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: "The Front Page"

It's hard to believe but there used to be very few outlets for people to get the news. No Internet. No blogs. No social media. No cable. Radio and television beamed news reports into people's homes and cars but, if you really wanted to know what was going on in the world, if you wanted to "deep-dive" into the complexities of the world you lived in, then you needed to read a newspaper. Yes, read. Read paper. With words on it. Carefully written words backed up by reporting and facts. Written by reporters. Professional reporters. Interesting concept, no?

The world of newspaper reporting is a romantic one -- think movies like His Girl Friday, All the President's Men, and last year's Oscar-winner Spotlight. Newspapers were places where hard-boiled types (usually men) wearing hats and ties quickly pounded out stories on a typewriter, trying to make that midnight deadline, stories that would speak truth to power and reveal all the rot beneath the surface of respectable society. Increasingly newspapers are disappearing as the economic foundation for them melts away. Back in the day, however, newspapers were powerful and profitable. They broke news and made news. And perhaps no play better captured the fevered world of newspapers than the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. 

Currently playing in a popular revival on Broadway, The Front Page is one part a newspaper romance, another part a thriller. It's set in Chicago in 1928, the night before a Communist-sympathizer accused of killing a black cop is set to be executed. As the plot unfolds, a conspiracy involving politics and the miscarriage of justice is revealed along with the personality conflicts and divided loyalties of the reporters covering the story. Believe it or not, it's a comedy, a mystery, and a love letter to newspapers rolled into one. It's fun. I shan't go into great detail about the plot (it's complex) but, if you want to know more, go here

This production technically does not open until October 20th but I recently caught a preview of The Front Page. It has, in short, an amazing cast: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Renee Scott, the legendary Robert Morse, and many fine others. It's an orgy of talent and everyone in the cast plays their parts to the hilt. The play itself is quite amusing if not always laugh at loud funny but the characters are well-defined and compelling. The plot itself is basically an excuse to play out the wacky interactions of the different characters and it mostly works. However, given that what I saw was a preview and therefore an early rough draft of the production, the timing of the play felt somewhat off, somewhat forced. It was clear, to me at least, that the actors were getting used to playing their roles.

That said, when Nathan Lane finally arrives about half-way into the play, it becomes a different show. It becomes fast and funny. It becomes the kind of screwball comedy you were expecting. As the swaggering, outrageous owner of a Chicago tabloid, Lane goes full bore into his character, tearing up the stage with his big personality and perfect timing. The rest of the cast does its best. John Slattery, better known as Roger from Mad Men, is wonderful and John Goodman is lovable even though he's playing a bad guy. I love the actor Jefferson Mays who plays a snooty reporter (I've seen him in I Am My Own Wife and Journey's End) and I just wish that he had a bigger part but he's always fascinating to watch on stage. I'm also glad to have finally seen Sherie Renee Scott on stage but, like Mays, I wish she had more to do. However, it really is a great cast and worth seeing.

So I recommend The Front Page if you love comedy, newspapers, the 1920s, and Nathan Lane. It's a paeab to a lost world.

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