The good news is that the great Nathan Lane is in great comic form in a hilarious, sharp and delightful revival of that old newspapering chestnut “The Front Page.” The bad news is that he doesn’t come onstage full throttle until the end of Act Two. Yes, this “Front Page” revival with crackerjack direction by Jack O’Brian is full frontal as well as full throttle. It contains ALL of the original’s THREE ACTS. So if you don’t like three act extravaganzas of wit and razor sharp hilarity, you can skip this one, But boy you’ll be missing something good!
Comic Genius like Nathan Lane’s is a rare thing. He hasn’t been this overwhelmingly funny since the original “Producers” on Broadway a while back but he’s here now and I must urge you to go see him and John Goodman(! of all people) playing supporting roles in which everyone in the two dozen ensemble is just spot on perfect. The other bad news is that the central character of the show, the famous Hildy Parks, is not up to the rest of the cast. We have an exhausted John Slattery from TV’s “Mad Men” losing his voice and not up to stage acting at all.
After all that time on television, Mr. Slattery has forgotten how to project from the stage, but nevermind the ensemble of cut-throat newspapermen is the star and there’s so many of them I couldn’t do them all justice, except to tell them all that they are grand, grand, grand. Director O’Brian has really worked them all into a rat-a-tat frenzy that bouys you along until Nathan Lane makes his grand entrance in the nether reaches of Act Two.
But Mr. Lane is glorious here and the Act we do have of him, is inspired. He’s playing the irascible publisher, Matthews, not a part that you would remember from any previous incarnation. The same with John Goodman’s tin-horn corrupt sheriff. They are all as foul-mouthed short-tempered and trash-talking as you’d think newspapermen of that era would be, but O’Brian makes you love each and every one of them. They’re the salt of the earth he, and authors Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur(Who was eventually Helen Hayes’ husband)want us all to know.
Their seedy digs are smoke-filled, one big coffee stain of a Chicago office, that is marvelously re-created by Douglas Schmidt’s tatteredemalion set and Anne Roth’s just-right period costumes. This is time-traveling at its’ best, the era is so perfectly rendered. This office overlooks the local gallows, and yes, there’s a lot of gallows humor here, but it’s hysterical.
If only Cary Grant had be around to play Hildy Parks in this production. But there are no Cary Grants around Broadway today. Nathan Lane when he was younger could have played this great part, transmorgrified in the movie into Rosalind Russell as “His Girl Friday”, a signature role of hers that I was never able to abide. Howard Hawks had her and yes, Cary Grant himself, speaking their lines so fast it always gave me a headache.
But here Hecht’s and MacArthur’s lines were music to my ears, it’s done so well by this terrific cast. Like newspapers themselves, it’s a kind of word-loving, witty, salty symphony that you never want to end. Go!