“The Front Page” is remembered fondly (perhaps most of all by swooning print critics) for its wiseguy characters, snappy dialogue and cynical salute to a bygone journalistic era of jaded writers, crooked pols and opportunistic editors. Maybe not so bygone, after all. But Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur put some real spit in their polished piece of theatrical machinery in 1928. They both celebrate and condemn the time of anything-goes journalism — it’s not all yucks amid the hustling bums of the press room.
The Williamstown Theater Festival production is to be credited for attempting to deal with the darker elements of the self-aggrandizing, self-loathing, hardscrabble newspaper world, including its deeply rooted racism, classism and sexism.
But it’s not a particularly accomplished production, with an uneven ensemble that has yet to find its specificity (or its commonality), leads that occupy the stage rather than own it and a revised script that tampers with one of the most well-crafted entrances in theater history.
Instead of holding back the dramatic bow of unscrupulous but irresistible editor Walter Burns (Richard Kind) to the climactic end of the second act as originally written, helmer Ron Daniels dissipates the anticipation by having the character appear intermittently behind a scrim for two acts, talking on a telephone to the characters onstage.
Daniels also adds a few other unnecessary flourishes. A pair of period cops give the obligatory precurtain spiel and herd the audience back after each of the two intermissions; a bunch of newsboys shout out headlines, giving some summer apprentices close-to-the-stage time but otherwise simply adding to the obvious. Ditto Riccardo Hernandez’s set, with its period marquees needlessly extending beyond the Chicago Courthouse where the action takes place.
But obviousness is the rule rather than the exception here.
As Burns, Kind is more deputy editor than journo smoothie, full of bluster but not panache. You never get the commanding sense of dare and dash, or the knowing grace of a self-blessed man. A last-minute attempt to establish a deeper bond with his star reporter is too little and too late.
Jason Butler Harner is an energetic, happy-go-lucky Hildy Johnson, but he, too, lacks the complicated undertones of the character, who appears more genuine clutching an Underwood than his fiancee. (His relationship with her borders on the goofy.)
But several supporting characters manage admirable solo moments in the spotlight.
Kathy McCafferty gives an impassioned perf as tart Mollie Malloy; John Cariani’s reprieve-delivering Pincus is not just from out-of-town but from another planet — and a welcome visitor at that; Kay Walbye lands her perfectly flummoxed moments as Mrs. Grant; Sean Patrick Reilly is playfully oily as “Diamond” Louie; Wayne Knight can play smarm in his sleep and has some funny moments as Sheriff Hartman.
Such performances brighten an otherwise serviceable production that fails to find the right balance to bring all the contradictory elements into a stop-the-presses whole.