Revival of `Front Page' packs plenty of punch

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The Front Page Play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Jerry Zaks. A crackling revival of ``The Front Page,'' by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, has exploded onto the stage of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.

An audience hit and a shocker when it opened on Broadway nearly 60 years ago, the comedy melodrama about the then low estate of Chicago's fourth estate retains sufficient sting and punch to jolt a susceptible spectator.

For those who have missed both the play and its film versions, ``The Front Page'' takes place in the pressroom of Chicago's Criminal Courts Building (visualized in fascinating perspective by set designer Tony Walton).

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The authors are concerned with the grittier extremes of journalism's nitty-gritty.

The running poker game and distractions of casual newsgathering are interrupted by a convicted murderer's escape from the prison several floors below the press room.

Later on, when killer Earl Williams (Paul Stolarsky) climbs in through the pressroom window, reporter Hildy Johnson (Richard Thomas) and his managing editior Walter Burns (John Lithgow) scramble to secrete Williams, scoop the competition, and embarrass Chicago's inept sheriff (Richard B. Shull) and bumbling mayor (Jerone Dempsey).

Burns is equally determined to sabotage Hildy's plans for marriage and a break from journalistic toils to the rewards of a New York advertising job.

The final, devious Burns ploy involves one of the most celebrated curtain lines in modern American drama. Mr. Lithgow delivers it with fierce relish.

Drawing on their own experiences as Chicago reporters, Hecht and MacArthur created a stage piece as satirically authentic as it was wildly melodramatic.

It remained for a pair of secondary characters to endow ``The Front Page'' with its modicum of decency and nobility.

One of them is the defiant prostitute, Mollie Malloy (Deirdre O'Connell), whose efforts to conceal Williams's whereabouts proves fatal to her; the other is little Mr. Pincus (Bill McCutcheon), the functionary who, when the chips are down, proves immune to bribery by the venal mayor and sheriff.

It would be difficult to imagine a better company than the one assembled by director Jerry Zaks at the Vivian Beaumont - proving again that good direction begins with good casting.

Mr. Thomas makes Hildy an obsessive pro, whose treatment of his longsuffering fianc'ee, Peggy Grant (Julie Haggerty), and her outraged mother (Beverly May) exceeds the merely cavalier. Lithgow epitomizes the bluster and unscrupulous ways of a fictionalized managing editor.

From the central antagonists to the motley bunch of reporters, the sleazy officials, and assorted incidental characters, this hard-boiled, hard-edged satire on inhuman nature in the world of politics, poker, and journalism has been excellently served.

However broad they may be at times, the histrionic strokes are justified by the demands of the script. Besides Mr. Walton's brilliant use of the depths of the Beaumont stage, the production benefits visually from Willa Kim's costumes and Paul Gallo's lighting.

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