Before media congloms, ombudsmen and Katie Couric, there was “The Front Page,” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s slice-of-life play about the yellow journalism days of 1920s Chicago. The comedy — with its later cleaned-up, revised script — is usually played as a nostalgic valentine to a bygone era, complete with lovable lugs, tarts and pols aiming for the broadest of laughs. Only the pace (fast, faster or fastest) tends to differentiate productions.
But this Long Wharf production goes back to the original 1928 text, with all its racial and ethnic epithets, and plays it (mostly) for real, without gumming up the well-oiled classic of theatrical engineering. Helmer Gordon Edelstein even allows the aud to catch its breath — along with some ripe and sometimes disturbing details — as the comedy machine rolls along.
These reporters are as soiled and worn as the press room in Michael Yeargan’s motley marvel of a smoke-stained set (though there are, incredibly, no reporters smoking).
But the boys in the back room have some darker colors. These scribes hustle to scrape out a dubious journalistic niche by sheer immigrant nerve, hungry to find their place in America but hardening their humanity to do so. As the men rally against the rich and the state, they also show their own bigotry against the “other,” whether blacks, women or the next wave of immigrants. This subtext deftly shades the production without getting in the way of the fun.
It’s in the blood for these men willing to hit below the belt to get above the fold; although they may dream of escape, they know their second-class lot and they make the most of it, with wisecracks, bravado and gallows humor.
Not that there isn’t enough to be cynical about: corrupt politicians on the take, spinning the news and doing whatever they can get away with to win elections. These greased pols play the race card, pander to voters and exploit fears of an unseen menace. Meanwhile, scoundrel reporters break the news by making deals, welcoming kickbacks and taking care of their own. Sound familiar? Is this “Front Page” or Page Six?
Leading Long Wharf’s journalistic rat pack are Chris Henry Coffey as escaping ace reporter Hildy Johnson, and Jeff McCarthy as editor Walter Burns, who will do anything to make Hildy stay at his Underwood. Coffey, with the dashing blond looks of an Arrow Shirt model, shows his heart hasn’t yet been lost: His Hildy has charm to spare plus a brashness that’s filled with life rather than loathing.
Burns doesn’t arrive until the end of the second act, but McCarthy wastes no time in commandeering the show. With glorious deadpan panache, McCarthy’s Burns makes an elegant, mesmerizing and masterful manipulator.
Bill Geisslinger, Jim Frangione, Don Sparks, Charlie Tirrell, Robert Dorfman and Tom Aulino have the authentic look and rhythm of reporters who can go from world-weary to dagger-sharp on a dime. Jerry Grayson’s gangster turn as Diamond Louie is a comic gem.
Bringing the real world of anguish into the press room is Alyssa Bresnahan’s Molly Malloy. Bob Ari and Jeff Steitzer make the most of political duplicity — not to mention dunderheadedness — as the mayor and sheriff, respectively.
But not all the perfs are spot-on, and the necessity of double-casting creates a few false notes. Several times the players lapse into jokey exaggeration.
Production values are solid, with Jane Greenwood finding just the right wrinkle or pants crease to nail a character. Steven Strawbridge lights the Criminal Courts Building press room with the dusty glow of bulbs on their last flicker. Shoot-’em-up tech effects at end of act one are dandy. There’s even a swell curtain tableau that acts as both a flash from the past and a snapshot of the present.