Trappings of journalism have changed since “The Front Page” debuted to acclaim on Broadway in August 1928. But it’s the early 20th-century props and personalities that energize the rollicking second act of this revival under Gene Saks’ direction as the opening production of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 30th season.
The press room setting of Chicago’s criminal courts building in 1927 has clacking typewriters, a battery of spindly telephones, a roll-top desk, working table and wooden chairs. The room is (literally) manned by a distinctly undiversified crew of white, male, wisecracking reporters dressed in coats, ties and straw or fedora hats.
A comparable room today would typically be highly diversified and full of modern technology. Reporters today probably don’t have as much fun on the job as their counterparts of the Roaring ’20s.
Neither are they likely to be as conniving, underhanded and backstabbing in the face of rabid competition with other newspapers, which no longer compete with each other as much as with other media.
The more significant, underlying theme of the story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, both journalists turned playwrights, is the inherent tension between reporters and elected officials. A reporter’s success depends on getting a scoop over other reporters. Success for the contemptible, corrupt or incompetent “servants” of the public lies in getting re-elected. The ends, they believe, justify the means of manipulating coverage of news as much as they can..
The lightweight thread holding the heavier storylines together is the conflict between impending marriage and tenuous resignation from the Examiner for ace reporter Hildy Johnson, played with high energy and radiance by Grant Goodman, whose regional theater credits are heavy with Shakespeare. On his way to the train station to take his fiancee and her mother to New York for a wedding and new job, Hildy stops by to say goodbye to his competitors and compatriots in the press room. They are hanging out waiting for the scheduled 7 a.m. hanging of murderer Earl Williams, pathetically and sympathetically portrayed by Ken Jennings.
Hildy can’t resist the magnetism of a breaking story as Williams escapes. Hildy fortuitously nabs Williams, hides him in the roll-top desk and leaves it to managing editor Walter Burns — played to the hilt by vet Mike Genovese as excessively competitive, manipulating, hard-charging and boisterous — to get him out of the press room.
Burns calls on every resource, mostly unreliable, to get the scoop of a lifetime: “This ain’t a story, it’s a career!”
Simultaneously Burns tries to break up Hildy’s plans to leave town and his job while jousting with the mayor and sheriff over custody of Williams.
The deliberate pace of the first act introduces the characters and their various reasons for being in the press room. The second act is pure fun as the entire cast races repeatedly through the press room pursuing their conflicting interests.
A press room is the only set by Narelle Sissons. It’s effective in simplicity and starkness as it covers the entire three-quarters-round stage. Allen Hahn’s lighting is full and stark, with accent lighting upstage to convey unseen action taking place outside. Costumes by James Scott have the reporters except Hildy uniformly in beige, which could be a statement in itself. All others are more colorfully and typically attired.
A winner of three Tony Awards who’s closely associated with Neil Simon’s works, Saks’ venture with PlayMakers is his first outside New York with a production not intended for Broadway. Saks sought and got a cast larger, deeper and stronger than usual for the company and necessary for such a broad production.
Ronn Carroll stands out as Bensinger, segregating himself from the more macho newshounds, obsessing over exposure to germs and selling himself as much as a poet as reporter.
“The Front Page” is as venerable as any revival, especially with the media continuing, intentionally or not, to attract attention to themselves. As long as productive tension exists between media and public officials, the news for “The Front Page” is good.