Stop the Press
It's hard to cop to this, but here goes: As the lights rise over the masterfully crafted set of The Front Page at the Dallas Theater Center, I am already prejudiced against the production. That's right, prejudiced against this classic of the American theater. Artistic director Richard Hamburger has chosen to remain faithful to the original 1928 play, a zany satirical comedy about press, politics and the corrupting influences of both.
Authors Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur scripted the lead of Hildy Johnson as a man, an ace Chicago reporter who wants to hang up his Smith Corona for matrimony. Nemesis Walter Burns is his jagged-edged editor who will do whatever it takes to stop him. But for my money, nothing can compare to the play's 1940 movie remake (there are two other screen versions) titled His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks, which set the gold standard for the screwball comedy.
In an inventive sex change, Hildy is played by a fast-talking, street-savvy Rosalind Russell who is not only Walter Burns' hottest reporter, but also his ex-wife. Cary Grant doesn't just star as the unrelenting Burns, he owns the part, manipulating, intimidating, cajoling and lying to get back what he wants. But what he wants is not only Hildy the reporter, but also Hildy the wife. This twin motivation adds dimension and empathy to Burns, who is temporarily thwarted by Hildy's plans to marry the wimpy Bruce Baldwin (played in true second-banana form by Ralph Bellamy). The film works partly because its gait--rapid-fire delivery, stinging one-liners, overlapping dialogue--captures the frenetic pace and urgency of the newsroom and the jazz era.
Setting aside my biases in favor of the screen version won't be easy, particularly because the verbal sparring between males Hildy and Walter will lack any sexual tension and love longing. And yet for the Dallas Theater Center production to be successful, it has to capture this high-speed pacing from the minute the play opens with the chorus of reporters who inhabit the press room at the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. The DTC bunch certainly looks the part. This miscellany of poker-playing, banjo-strumming, tough-talking misfits are waiting impatiently through the night to chronicle the final moments and hanging of convicted murderer Earl Williams. Earl has been branded a Bolshevik (he says he is actually an anarchist) by the mayor and the sheriff who are running for re-election on the slogan "Reform the Reds with a rope." The press eats it up, even though they know that the reason these politicos are so interested in seeing Earl dead is to secure the "colored" vote. Though he claims insanity, Earl has murdered a police officer who happened to be African-American.
But these beat reporters have seen it all, heard it all, know it all, and for them, the truth seldom gets in the way of a good story. Hovering over them, ironically enough, is a huge portrait of "Honest Abe" Lincoln, whose ethics they obviously have chosen to disregard. Most notable among them is Fort Worth's Jerry Russell (founder of Stage West), who possesses the right amount of coarseness and hard-edged attitude to pull off the part. But all contribute, though mostly as stereotypes--the lazy, the lame, the antiseptic--as director Hamburger orchestrates them into a staccato of sarcasm and one-liners, which at times sags and at times soars.
Maybe it's the fault of the traditional three-act play structure, which must stretch for, well, three acts. But we are peppered with these guys for too long before the plot gets pushed up a notch by the entrance of Hildy Johnson (John Wojda), who is quitting the news business to get married, move to New York and go into advertising. Though eminently talented, Wojda surprises as the choice for Johnson. He seems more male ingénue than rough hewn; his hard-boiled is just a little too soft, and it's difficult to understand why the other nail-spitting reporters hold him in such high regard. But Wojda does deliver on his torment, torn between his love for journalism and his love for his adoring though decidedly frustrated fiancee Peggy (Sally Nystuen Vahle).
Still, Hildy just can't resist the lure of the big story, particularly one that gets dropped in his lap. Because of bumbling Sheriff Hartman, Earl (Dwight Sandell) cheats the hangman, busts out of jail and winds up in the press room, which gives Hildy the exclusive of his life while preventing him from getting on with the rest of it. Craig Bockhorn provides the evening's biggest laughs as the inept, politically unsophisticated sheriff. He serves as a great comic foil to the unctuous mayor (played with much aplomb by Stephen Bradbury), who is willing to stoop to bribery, pimping, even murder to guarantee that Earl Williams gets hanged and he gets re-elected (never trust a guy wearing spats). Together, they are no match for Walter Burns (Charles Hyman), whose unredeemable character makes the play less engaging than its screen counterpart. This Walter Burns has no heart; he even corrupts the profession he loves with his willingness to exploit it for power.
Hamburger does his best to up the intellectual quotient of the play by including in his program notes some information about capital punishment, public executions and Texas' "own unique history with the death penalty." The Front Page, however, makes no statement about the death penalty, but only takes broad comedic swipes at it, mostly through the character of a police officer referred to by the press corps as Woodenshoes (played blockheadedly by the always entertaining Lynn Mathis). Even the issues it does deal with--the corrosive influence of politics and the press in American society--are played for laughs. Hamburger should be commended, though, for his unflinching portrayal of the times, never pulling punches or language that in today's world would be considered un-PC. African-Americans are referred to as "coloreds," a homosexual as a "fairy," a mentally retarded child as an "idiot kid"--despite some audible gasps from the audience. And the play is replete with sexist comments and actions that reflect the tenor of the '20s.
This authenticity is mirrored in the play's set, which was intricately designed by John Coyne. The action of the play occurs in the courthouse press room, the top of the gallows easily visible through its tall windows. No detail is spared--roll top desks, multiple telephone lines, hat racks, cluttered trash cans. Oddly, a large clock set at 8:30--the beginning of Act I--is mounted center stage, but its prominence distracts from the work rather than serves it. Many dramas use clocks to heighten tension, becoming almost characters themselves (think High Noon). But here, Earl Williams' execution is scheduled for 7 a.m., and the play begins nearly 11 hours earlier. We never get to a point where time is of the essence or if something doesn't happen at a certain time, bad stuff will follow. With the clock ticking away, it seems as though you are staring at your watch. You grow conscious of the time and more aware that you are watching a play when it stutters and drags. Neither of which happens too often in the DTC production, but when they do, it cuts against the spirit of the piece and the hectic pace its authors intended.
Theater is an organic process; a show can grow within its run as the actors develop more chemistry, anticipate each other's lines, bring more stage business to their work. In order for The Front Page to work, it needs to be on fire. There is still time for the DTC production to spontaneously combust. Then again, the opening-night audience members seemed perfectly delighted by the performance, but they may not have approached the play with my same passion for His Girl Friday.
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