In his August 1928 rave for The Front Page, Brooks Atkinson, of the Times, felt compelled to offer a warning that the Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur dialogue “bruises the sensitive ear with a Rabelaisian vernacular unprecedented for its up-hill and down-dale blasphemy.” Our ears are not so sensitive 88 years later, and I can print words here that would have turned Rabelais red, but the fourth Broadway revival of the show, which opened last night in a top-notch production starring Nathan Lane, still gets to a man’s heart through his ears. Though it’s generically a farce, if a dark one, you can see why Atkinson called it a melodrama: The first act, which is mostly exposition, works like an orchestral tone poem, with the voices of a septet of Chicago newsmen entering fuguelike in various registers and taking their time to get to a climax. The slow build, like the play overall, is a masterpiece of construction, the kind that for a hundred reasons (including the cost of a 25-person cast) shouldn’t work today, but that under Jack O’Brien’s nervy direction undeniably does.
It’s part of the cold bedrock of the comedy that the subject of its farcical plot is as grim as it gets: The newsmen are idling in the press room at the Criminal Courts building one Friday night in anticipation of an execution. The next morning at 7, Earl Williams, a nebbish anarchist who accidentally shot a cop, is to be hanged, less it seems for his crime than as part of the mayor’s and the police chief’s reelection campaign. For most of the newsmen, the only things rousing their interest in the matter are the possibility of a scoop and the avoidance of discomfort; couldn’t the guy get hanged a bit sooner so they wouldn’t have to cool their heels for so long? (A journalist, says one, is “a cross between a bootlegger and a whore.”) But for Hildy Johnson, of the Herald-Examiner, something larger is at stake. En route to New York to marry his fiancée, give up his press card, and go into advertising — an inside joke here, as Johnson is played winningly by Mad Men’s John Slattery — he nevertheless finds himself swept up in the excitement of one last investigative crusade when the lead of his life falls almost literally into his lap.
That “literally” indicates the farce here: Many door-slams, seven phones, and a very large roll-top desk are involved. But The Front Page is no sitcom. The comedy emerges not from jokes (there are none) or even from the general atmosphere, which in Douglas W. Schmidt’s set, lit as if through dryer lint by Brian MacDevitt, is magnificently grimy. Rather, the comedy comes from the percussive patois, so fundamentally coarse but brilliantly polished, and from what you might call the structural comedy of fate: the gotchas, escapes, and reversals of fortune that are inherent to the politico-journalistic ecosystem. Ambition, as the Greeks knew, is the engine of tragedy; deprivation the engine of comedy. With its food chain of frustration, The Front Page leans toward the latter, but not decisively; its laughs are the residue of cynicism, popping up on the surface of the plot like dew, or sweat.
A contemporary audience may therefore find the language less shocking than the dramaturgy, which presumes it will meet with a certain amount of patience and an interest in the byways of novel milieus. (Hecht and MacArthur knew their newsrooms.) The first big laughs don’t come until the second act, and even then they’re on the phone, when Johnson’s boss, Walter Burns, starts screaming invective over the horn. From that point until the classic third-act curtain line, possibly unbettered in American drama, Burns, whether onstage or off, runs the show; he’s the deus ex printing press that makes the difference between a museum piece and a humdinger. Lane may be the last actor left who can do this sort of thing. It’s not just a matter of endurance, though Burns is a character operating at top mental speed and top volume at all times; ferociousness comes into it as well. Lane plays Burns as a barely disguised sadist, with virtually no concession to likability, and if an old lady in a big hat gets in his way, he blows her down without a second thought. Often thought of as a wit or a clown, Lane is really a time bomb onstage, with no fuse and an infinite payload.
So definitive and dominating is he that it’s tempting to leave the rest of the cast in his shadow. But one of the very deep pleasures of The Front Page is the chance it provides, not just in numbers but in stage time, to watch a large ensemble of character actors do what they’re so good at. The definition of the newsmen with their distinctively smarmy personality defects is especially superb here, running the gamut from weird sleazebag to fey hypochondriac to nearly human, with local stops in between. (The ideal actors are Lewis J. Stadlen, David Pittu, Christopher McDonald, Joey Slotnick, Dylan Baker, Clarke Thorell, and Jefferson Mays.) Piquant cameo portraits are also provided by Micah Stock as a cop obsessed with psychology, Dann Florek as the preening mayor, and Holland Taylor as the battle-ax in the hat. (I was not as taken with some of the other marquee names, who didn’t seem to get the same memo everyone else got about the production’s tone.) And it seems that in honoring the rhythms of an older period of playwriting — the text has apparently been cobbled together from several versions — O’Brien occasionally lets the tension leak out of the background once Lane has appeared in the foreground.
But these are quibbles. The Front Page is a classic not only for its playability but also for its timelessness: No one will ever need footnotes to understand the idea of journalists competing venally to expose venal politicians. What they may need, though, is internet access, because the presses that printed Atkinson’s review, and the reviews of every Broadway revival since then until this one, are as obsolete as the typewriters and candlestick telephones and “Get me rewrite!” commands depicted in the play. So may theater critics be. Therefore, let me use my end-times platform to contradict Atkinson, who advised “squeamish folk” to stay home. On the contrary, squeamish folk will love it, and when it comes to politics and journalism, who isn’t squeamish?
The Front Page is at the Broadhurst Theatre through January 29.