Two stars of The Front Page, Nathan Lane and John Slattery, are in the back room of a Chelsea Italian joint waiting for a third, John Goodman. “He was in a car right behind us,” Lane says before shrugging, ordering a Chardonnay, and settling in to reminisce with Slattery about a play, The Lisbon Traviata, that they did together back in 1989. “Nathan was the toast of the town — I mean, it was a hilarious part,” says Slattery. “And I was naked. I made my New York theater debut naked. It was horrifying.” Soon, the pair — now joined at dinner by Goodman, who’s had a preprandial smoke — will again team up and begin rehearsals for their revival of The Front Page, a 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur about a band of salty newspapermen waiting for a hanging, reveling in gallows humor, and making up headlines as they go.
Nathan Lane: I’m the one who sort of got this going. [Producer] Scott Rudin said, “Is there a play you’d like to do?” and I suggested The Front Page. It’s a classic American comedy of the 20th century — some people say the American comedy. As Tennessee Williams famously said, “It was the play that uncorseted the American theater,” because it was rather profane and outrageous for 1928. It’s also the Rosetta stone of plays about newspapers. And the media today still feels like, “Oh yeah, if I don’t have a story, I’ll make one up.”
John Slattery: Part of the issue with trusting the media now is that it’s as partisan as politics. You know, you watch Fox News or you watch CNN —
John Goodman: You read the Post or the Times.
Slattery: You get the news you want to hear. Look at this election: If you adamantly state something as the truth, it remains the truth until someone comes on the next day and says, “That’s totally untrue.”
Lane: Why struggling people think this so-called billionaire is going to look out for them, or the middle class, is ludicrous.
Slattery: Trump doesn’t even believe the stuff he says —
Lane: No. He’s improvising.
Goodman: We’re sitting here talking about him, wasting a perfectly good meal!
Lane: Let’s change the subject then. Hecht and MacArthur lived in this era of journalism. They were both reporters in Chicago, and so the play has a very authentic feel. Oh, the poor press!
Goodman: When I was doing Roseanne, she was a magnet for the tabloids. I was collateral damage. I’d walk out of a place with a friend of mine’s girlfriend — he was behind us — and they had me leaving my wife on the front page. Every five years, they say I’m dying. I don’t like to read my own interviews anyway, ’cause I sound like a horse’s ass.
Slattery: I feel the same way.
Lane: Well, I had a big interview, and the interviewer I knew very well, and the notion was we were going to talk honestly about things and it wasn’t going to be a puff piece. And then she told me the editor had said, “Go darker, darker.” So the article made me out to be bipolar. I mean, people wrote me and said —
Goodman: “Nathan’s on the roof again.”
Lane: “You need medication.” It was ridiculous — the darkest sad-clown story ever. And the first thing I said to her was, “Please don’t write the sad-clown story, that I’m the funny guy who’s sad, because if we start to talk about my childhood — you know, I had a rather tragic, Irish Catholic childhood — but we all have our pains and our sorrows. Please don’t make it that.” And it became the utmost version of that.
Goodman: I did a New York Times Magazine interview in a bar. Not smart.
Slattery: Never a good idea.
Lane: Well, if we’re talking about bad ideas, I did an interview with Brian Dennehy in a bar.
Goodman: Oh, Lordy.
Grooming by Melissa Dezarate for Exclusive Artists Management using Chanel Cosmetics.
*This article appears in the August 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.