Ah, those were the golden days of journalism, when big cities like Chicago were infested with cheesy tabloids, and cynical reporters crammed themselves into squalid press rooms to write (or fabricate) sensational news stories. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur gleefully satirize the lax values and loose morals of that era in their 1928 comedy classic, “The Front Page.” Drawing on a starry cast toplined by Nathan Lane and John Slattery, Jack O’Brien directs an impeccable revival that delights in the tasteless vulgarity of that fabled era.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s single set of Chicago’s Criminal Court press room, circa 1928, captures the spirit of tabloid journalism in all its greasy glory. The grim posters about diphtheria, whooping cough, and scarlet fever hanging over the roll-top desk of Bensinger (Jefferson Mays in another fastidious comic performance), the Chicago Tribune’s germ-phobic crime reporter, should be warning enough that working in these squalid quarters takes the constitution of a horse. Not to mention guts.
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But the boys in the press room are used to wallowing in filth. Right now, they’re keeping a death watch on the Cook County jail, where Earl Williams (John Magaro) is waiting to be hanged for shooting a black police officer. And despite all their whining and cajoling, Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) ignores the press corps’ callous pleas to push up the execution to 5 a.m., so they can make their newspapers’ morning edition. Not even the slimy mayor played by a cool Dann Florek can fend off the inevitable, although a nebbishy little messenger (Robert Morse, enjoying a moment of glory) manages to upset the whole sordid business.
The gang’s all here, in O’Brien’s sublime cast, looking disreputable in Ann Roth’s shabby suits and battered hats, smelling of cheap cigars, and soaked in cynicism. The only newshound missing from this pack is Hildy Johnson (the shrewdly cast Slattery), star reporter of the Herald-Examiner, and he’s got the perfect excuse. He’s about to board a train with his fiancée (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor), bound for marriage and a more respectable profession in New York.
But when Williams steals the sheriff’s gun, escapes from jail, and seeks refuge in the press room, Hildy reverts to character. Determined to score a scoop, he hides the fugitive in the roll-top desk and desperately tries to fend off both his colleagues and unwelcome visitors like Williams’ frantic girlfriend, Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott), the hapless cleaning lady played by Patricia Connolly, and his own fiancée and her harridan of a mother (Holland Taylor).
The situation offers a variety of opportunities for farcical comedy, and if O’Brien missed any one of them, I failed to catch it. The production is as close to perfection as it comes, peaking in sheer hilarity when Hildy’s editor, Walter Burns (Lane), roars onstage to sabotage his star reporter’s plans to escape. The play itself was inspired by the playwrights’ own combat duty as a crime beat reporter on Chicago newspapers, and the character of Walter, played with comic genius by Lane, is a brilliant caricature of legendary city editors renowned for their ruthlessness.
No, they don’t write ensemble plays like this anymore, and you have to be crazy to produce a new play that calls for an ensemble cast of 26 — and certainly not with such a sterling cast. But this is a limited engagement, which seems to be the only way to pull off a stunt like this nowadays. Count yourself lucky if you scored a seat. You won’t forget it.