Sunday, December 4, 2016

Never stop the presses

I visited an old theatrical friend last fall - a limited Broadway run of the 1928 classic play about newspaper journalism, The Front Page.

As far as I'm concerned, no play to this day has captured better the sheer exuberant adventure of being a newspaper reporter, wrapped in long hours, grubby conditions and low pay. With its brilliant structured plot, rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and snappy pace, The Front Page remains sensationally entertaining nearly 90 years later.

I first encountered this look at the raucous world of Chicago journalism in a 1969 Broadway revival, then in a 1994 production at Canada's Shaw Festival.

The current production, starring Nathan Lane, not only unwittingly illustrates the seismic 21st century changes in the newspaper business but also, in today's overwrought political landscape, how journalism may well save us. That may be too heavy a load to place on the shoulders of what is intended as a comedy, but it's there, nonetheless.

John Slattery, left, as Hildy Johnson and
 Nathan Lane, right, as Walter Burns. Photo/Variety 
It all takes place in the press room of the downtown Criminal Courts Building on the eve of a hanging. Reporters on the courts beat make this room their home - phoning updates to their copy desks while passing the time playing cards and cracking wise.

They seek to drum up stories from the police scanner, leading to one of my favorite lines, from McCue of the City Press: "Is is true, madame, that you were the victim of a Peeping Tom?"

They are a powerful group - representing eight newspapers in a pre-television and certainly pre-Internet age. Radio was just beginning to grow in popularity.

Into their midst swaggers Hildy Johnson (played by John Slattery), star reporter for the Examiner, about to get married and move to New York for the plush confines of advertising and a salary of $150 a week. Not, however, if his editor, Walter Burns (played by Lane, whom we initially hear simply as an irascible voice barking orders over the phone) has anything to say about it.

The condemned man, Earl Williams (John Magaro), makes an improbable jailbreak, Hildy and Walter try to hide him for the scoop of all time, and the mayor (Dann Florek) and sheriff (John Goodman) are exposed as craven and corrupt opportunists.

Hildy tries to break free of the Examiner, Burns and the thrill of chasing the next big story as fiancee Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) grow impatient.

From left, John Goodman, John Slattery and Nathan Lane.
Photo Sara Krulwich/New York Times
It's not fair to compare performances, but the definitive Walter Burns for me was craggy Robert Ryan in the 1969 revival. Lane can play many things, but a tough guy isn't one of them. In fact, I was surprised to see him playing Walter and Slattery playing Hildy; the roles should have been reversed. Where Ryan prowled, Lane bustles.

Douglas W. Schmidt's wood-paneled set beautifully evokes the shabby grandeur of a 19th century municipal building.

The pace of the production could have been faster, however, and the comedy style a little less "knowing." Farce is at its best when it's played completely sincerely; any sort of "comment" on the action dilutes the fun for the audience.

As a former newspaper reporter and current editor, I love this play with all my heart. To me, the most romantic sentence is, "I am a newspaper reporter." The Canadian production got it wrong when it thought it was a critique of the business.

The Front Page glories in the raffish adventure of newspaper journalism, the adrenaline high of chasing the story, beating the competition, pounding out the words - even as it skewers with a clear eye the grubbier aspects of the process.

In covering and meddling in the saga of Earl Williams' escape, Hildy, Walter and the Examiner expose the incompetent sheriff and corrupt mayor - exactly what journalism is supposed to do.

The standup telephones are now smartphones and the typewriters now laptops, but journalism is more necessary than ever.   

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