Because of the presence in the cast of Nathan Lane, the revival of The Front Page has attracted attention, stirred anticipation and delivered record audiences. This dusty and often still funny 88-year-old play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur has been tallying over a million dollars a week in ticket sales at the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street, and a lot of it is due to Lane's popularity.
Lane made his Broadway debut in a small role in a revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter back in 1982 and has had many Broadway hits like Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but it was playing Max Bialystock in the 2001 musical stage version of Mel Brook's movie The Producers that made him a favorite actor with a wide audience of playgoers. He won his second Tony award as Max and since then has been filling theaters with his talent. People like him not merely because he is a star, but because he has won their admiration and affection. He is a rare breed – a first-rate actor who can do movies and television yet is essentially a theater creature, shining on stage in comedy, musicals or drama. His remarkable performance as Hickey in O'Neill's dark classic The Iceman Cometh was hailed with hosannas in Chicago and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The Front Page is in many ways an ideal vehicle for Lane's honed comic genius, even when he is surrounded by a shelf full of fine actors like Mad Men's John Slattery and John Goodman. Set in the Douglas W. Schmidt's authentically designed dingy, lackluster press room in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building on a Friday night in 1927, a flock of reporters is waiting around for a hanging to take place. The authentic period clothes are by Ann Roth, and the appropriate shadowy lighting is by Brian MacDevitt. Hecht and MacArthur, who were reporters before they became playwrights and screenwriters, give us the first important realistic look at what went on with ink-stained newspaper denizens eons ago. The play tries to cover lots of beats like political corruption, social ills and the incompetence of some of the hard-headed reporters. In the end, what it turns out to be is a heartfelt valentine of melodrama to the good old days when yellow newspaperdom was exciting and full of human chicaneries.
Under the direction of Jack O'Brien, the show seems a bit sluggish in its first two acts. The actors perform well. I don't know if it's that the show is dated or if the pacing of the play is off. The first Front Page I saw as a student on Broadway in 1969 starring Robert Ryan, Peggy Cass and Bert Convy was directed by an actor and mainly a summer stock director, Harold J. Kennedy. To me it was a wonder. Quite a few years later I saw it again at Lincoln Center Theater with John Lithgow and Richard Thomas and it worked fine though not as well as Ryan's production.
The basic plot of The Front Page starts off with Hildy Johnson, played by Slattery (a tad too old to be playing the Herald Examiner's foremost bachelor reporter), is getting ready to depart the paper and get married to the girl of his dreams, Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer). The Chicago's Sheriff Hartman (Goodman) by mistake allows the anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro) to escape, who is supposed to be hanged by the next dawn. The motley crew of local newspaper writers are all familiar and talented New York actors like Jefferson Mays (brilliant as the antiseptic reporter Bensinger), Dylan Baker (McCue), Lewis J. Stadlen (Endicott), Christopher McDonald (Murphy) and David Pittu (Schwartz). They are surrounded by an array of supporting character's – the cast is huge and totals cast of about 26 – like a dense German Policeman Woodenshoes Eichorn (Micha Stock); the fiancee's mother, Mrs. Grant (Holland Taylor); a scrubwoman, Jennie (Patricia Connoly); a soft-hearted, gum-chewing hussy, Mollie Malloy (Sherie Rene Scott); and a messenger, Mr. Pincus (Robert Morse, yes, the Robert Morse who today is 85 and was lead in the original 1962 How to Succeed... and the more recent Tru). Pincus delivers a last-minute reprieve for the prisoner, which the Sheriff and the Mayor (Dann Forek) try to cover up so they can win the election they are involved in.
Unfortunately, Lane as Walter Burns, the newspaper's editor, has a late entrance. He doesn't join the ensemble on stage until the end of the second of three acts. We have heard plenty about the ruthless Mr. Burns, and we have even heard his bellowing voice over the phone. He is furious that his top writer is marrying and leaving Chicago. On the phone you feel that by the time he steps on stage all the other actors might as well disappear. When he arrives in his proper Hamburg hat, three-piece suit and perky mustache he sets the play on a spinning roar. Hecht and MacArthur's catalyst has arrived. It is going to be mutiny between Walter and Hildy in the pressroom.
Lane has played these bluff characters before in an offhand, casual style to the point where he seems artless. His naturalness requires an unnatural amount of skill. The notion that he is “just being himself” in his best roles is nonsense. He is an expert technician who obviously knows what he is doing moment by moment. In The Producers he created the crookedness of the character of Max Bialystock on his own. He made Bialystock far more credible than any conventional leading man could and gave Brook's slender script the benefit of his great comic gifts. Now he is leaving his inimitable mark on The Front Page. When Lane is on stage, Hecht and MacArthur's ancient play catches a new life and laughs soar.
Lane is too good to be kept in one category. He seems to shop for roles of any suitable kind, and producers pray he will find their newest offering to his taste. Next he is off to the National Theatre in London to play Roy Cohn in a revival of Tony Krushner's Angels in America.