This dusty and often still-funny 88-year-old play by Charles Mac-Arthur and Ben Hecht has been tallying over $1 million a week in ticket sales at the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street, and a lot of it is because of Mr. Lane, who is held in admiration and affection.
Mr. Lane made his Broadway debut in a small role in a revival of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” back in 1982, but it was playing Max Bialystock in the 2001 musical stage version of Mel Brooks’s movie “The Producers” that made him a favorite with playgoers. He won a Tony award as Max, and has been filling theaters with laughter since then. People like him not merely because he is a star, but because he has created a good image and is a first-rate actor.
“The Front Page” is set in the Douglas W. Schmidt’s authentically designed dingy, lackluster press room in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building on a Friday night in 1927. The period clothes are by Ann Roth.
MacArthur and Hecht, who were reporters before they became playwrights, give us the first important and realistic look at what went on among ink-stained newspaper denizens eons ago in their era. It tries to cover lots of areas, such as political corruption, social ills and the incompetence of some of the hard-headed reporters. In the end, what it turns out to be is a heartfelt valentine of melodrama to the good old days when newspaperdom was a joy and full of comic human chicaneries.
Under the direction of Jack O’Brien, the show seems sluggish in its first two acts. The actors perform well, so it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the show’s old-fashioned tale or if it’s the pacing of the play that’s off.
The plot of “The Front Page” starts off when Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), The Herald Examiner’s foremost reporter, is ready to depart the paper and marry the girl of his dreams, Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer). Meanwhile, Chicago’s Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) accidentally allows the escape of an anarchist who is supposed to be hanged at dawn.
When Hildy visits the crew at the criminal courts building, he gets wind of the escape, a good story, and he is hooked.
Unfortunately, Mr. Lane, as snarly Walter Burns, the newspaper’s editor, doesn’t join the ensemble on stage until the end of the second act of the play’s three acts. We have heard plenty about the ruthless Mr. Burns and we have even heard his voice over the phone, but we haven’t seen him yet.
He is furious that his top writer is marrying and leaving Chicago. You know Mr. Burns will never let Hildy leave town. When Mr. Lane arrives on the stage in his proper Hamburg hat, three-piece suit and perky mustache, he finally sets the play on a spinning roar. The catalyst has arrived.
Mr. Lane has played these bluff characters before in an offhand, casual style to the point where he seems artless. His naturalness requires an unnatural amount of skill. The notion that he is “just being himself” in his best roles is nonsense. He is an expert technician who obviously knows what he is doing moment by moment. In “The Producers,” he created the crookedness of the character Max Bialystock on his own. He made Bialystock far more credible than any conventional leading man could and gave Mr. Brooks’s slender script the benefit of his great comic gifts. Now, he is leaving his inimitable mark on the “The Front Page” through January.
The motley crew of local newspaper writers are all familiar and talented New York actors: Jefferson Mays (Bensinger), Dylan Baker (McCue), Lewis J. Stadlen (Endicott) and David Pittu (Schwartz).
They are surrounded by an array of supporting characters – the cast of “The Front Page” is huge and totals about 26 actors. They also include dense Policeman Woodenshoes Eichorn (Micha Stock); the fiancee’s mother, Mrs. Grant (Holland Taylor); a scrubwoman, Jennie (Patricia Connoly); a soft-hearted, gum-chewing hussy, Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott); and a messenger, Mr. Pincus (Robert Morse). And yes, it is that Robert Morse, now 85, who was the lead in the original 1962 “How to Succeed” and the more recent “Tru.” He delivers a last-minute reprieve for the prisoner, which the Sheriff and the Mayor (Dann Forek) try to cover up until the election is over.
The first “Front Page” I saw on Broadway in 1969 as a kid starred Robert Ryan, Peggy Cass and Bert Convy, and it was directed by Harold J. Kennedy. It was a wonder. Quite a few years later, I saw it again at Lincoln Center Theater with John Lithgow and Richard Thomas and it worked fine, though not as well as Mr. Ryan’s production.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers arts and entertainment.