The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles Mac Arthur. Directed by Ron Daniels
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"God damn it...Iím a newspaper man!"
Brian Hutchison, Rod McLachlan, Joe Plummer, Wayne Knight, Robert Stanton, Ted Kôch, Matthew Rauch and Michael Braun; photo: Joan Marcus
There are plays that express the deepest concerns of men. The Front Page isnít meant to be one of them and yet, in a way, that is exactly what it is. From its title to its watch-cry "Iím a newspaper man." it is concerned with only one thing, really, the need to perform well at a job that can only be done one way, the hard way. It demands sacrifices of a man, even if those things being given up are exactly what he has worked for his whole life. A hard-boiled look at what makes a great newsman is what this play is all about except for one small thing. It happens to be a comedy, one of the best if itís given its head. At the Williamstown Theatre Festivalís mainstage opening night it was given exactly that and, in spite of its worn, familiar material it made its point and then some.
The longest act is the first one and it is so riddled with characters creating the larger overview that the audience could hardly pay attention to the principal character, Hildy Johnson. Hildy is saying goodbye to all that primary devotion. Heís getting married, leaving Chicago and going into business elsewhere. At least thatís his intent. His editor, Walter Burns, has other ideas. Just getting to this simple point in Act One is difficult in this production with its irregular pacing and peculiarly laconic style. But there is a retribution, a pay-off for anyone who sticks it out for the second and the third acts. They hit on all cylinders and make the lengthy, nearly three-hour, evening worthwhile.
Set in a press room in a building adjoining the state prison, a bunch of reporters are waiting for the execution of a local terrorist-type named Earl Williams. When he breaks out of jail the plot finally gets going. God bless Earl Williams.
The show has had a few lines added to it, but that hasnít made it longer because one character has been removed. Those new lines are given to Walter Burns so that he can be a distinct presence in the first act. In a way this diminishes the impact of his entrance in Act Two, but it does help to establish his difficult relationship with Hildy. Burns is played here by Richard Kind and he is just about the best thing on this stage. His third act con of the reporter and poet Bensinger, played to perfection by Robert Stanton, is nothing less than brilliant acting of a brilliant passage of prose. Kind is unlike the man we see on television, sappy, silly, vapid. Here is a powerful figure without scruples. He plays the character with more than an Orson Welles delivery; he gives it a personal strength that is uniquely his own.
Hildy hasnít got quite the sense, courage or willpower in the hands of Jason Butler Harner. In the first act he talks too fast, losing the audience. In the second act he becomes driven and takes on a more honest and realistic facade, but in the third act he steps into the shoes of Mr. Johnson and lets loose with the energy and honesty the part requires.
His fiancť is played by Amanda Leigh Cobb without a true sense of person or period. She is never more than a foil for him and never the equal of Kay Walbye who plays her mother in a very funny way. Likewise John Cariani makes the messenger role, Irving Pincus, into a small gem of a character part and is very funny. Bill Cwikowskiís escaped murderer Earl Williams is a treat.
The ensemble of newsmen are just fine, although their first act pace is what holds back the comedy, holds back the play. They donít seem to care enough about what theyíre doing inside those roles.
As the sheriff who allows the escape to take place Wayne Knight has more than a few shining moments and Tom Bloom playing Chicagoís Mayor is his equal in every scene. Bloom has never disappointed in his appearances with this company and once again he delivers a solid character.
Not so for Kathy McCafferty as Mollie Malloy. She has two scenes in which to get it right and her first one was a bust and her second was much, much better. Her Mollie could be a classic if she could only establish herself in her first pass through the press room. She might be great in this part by the time you see it, so keep your fingers crossed. She certainly has the talent.
One more stellar performance: Sean Patrick Reilly as Diamond Louie is practically perfect in every way. Bravo!
Riccardo Hernandez delivers a wonderfull complex period set and Linda Cho has given her many characters their looks with an eye to the writing of those characters and not just the actorsí bodies. Charles Foster produced lighting that added to the feeling of the time and place and Nick Borisjuk provided a sound ambience that felt equally right for this play.
The only major problem here is the first act, sluggish, rushed, sluggish again and just too painful. Thereís no reason it should be like that, but the fact is thatís what you get. But stick around for the last half of the evening. Itís worth the wait.
Wayne Knight and Richard Kind; photo: Joan Marcus
Kay Walbye, Jason Butler Harner and Amanda Leigh Cobb; photo: Joan Marcus
The Front Page plays through July 15 on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with performances Tuesdays to Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 8:30 with matinees Thursdays at 3:00, Saturdays at 4:00 and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $48 to $58 depending on the performance. For the final performance of THE FRONT PAGE on Sunday, July 15, ticket prices include a $10 donation to fund next seasoníís Christopher and Dana Reeve Apprenticeship. Festival performances are held at the íí62 Center for Theatre and Dance of Williams College at 1000 Main Street (Route 2) in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The theatre is wheelchair accessible. Assistive listening devices are available.