THEATER REVIEW ‘The Front Page’ ★★★ Through June 12 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.; running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes; tickets: $28-$38 at 773-281-8463 or timelinetheatre.com
Comedy always thrives on confidence, and scribes Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur caught Chicago newspaper men when they felt like regal untouchables. Cops? Sandwich-delivery guys in uniform. Chicago mayor? Illinois governor? Insecure and impotent without the right headlines. Sheriff? An object of endless abuse. Editors? Totally dependent on the fellow sniffing out the news.
Taking a job at The New York Times? Akin to turning in your masculinity and “working in a bank.” In a “rube town.” That, in the world of “The Front Page,” meant pretty much any place other than Chicago.
Nope, these “crummy hobos full of dandruff and bum gin” would no more jettison their lives inside the pulsing press room of the Criminal Courts Building — the heaving epicenter of the endless human story that was Chicago in 1928 — than they would show up home for dinner more than two times in a month. Their raison d’etre might sound prosaic, but this was the golden age of the power and influence of the retail American voter, a newly massively expanded demographic, as this script frequently and tellingly takes note with its sexist digs and chatter about “the colored vote.” With the rising power of voters came the rising power of newspapers, their main source of information as to whom to reward and whom to punish. In Hecht and MacArthur’s minds, there was no greater position to be had than telling a million “hired girls and motormen’s wives” what was going on in their exploding town.
For those of us who work for newspapers in a more challenging era, who toil for corporations rather than solo editors like Walter Burns, “The Front Page” is a bittersweet experience. Of course, one should not assume that Hecht and MacArthur were telling anything close to the truth. They were newspaper romantics glorifying their kind. For all its vaunted veracity, “The Front Page” was never a clear-eyed picture of this town or this business, but when you watch it play out in front of you, 83 years later, it still feels far closer to the human heartbeat than, say, The Huffington Post.
And thus it is a pleasure to see “The Front Page,” that zesty yarn of hacks, scoops and screwball derring-do, back up in Chicago in a very solid, fast-paced and entertaining production at the TimeLine Theatre featuring a huge cast. With the help of an immersive design from Collette Pollard, director Nick Bowling has cast a motley crew of journalistic-type characters, ranging from the deliciously effete Mark Richard (playing, of course, the man from the Tribune) to the droll Larry Baldacci (as the man from the Daily News) to Mike McNamara (the Post). The weasel-like Bill McGough takes amusing licks as Sheriff Hartman, while Rob Riley offers a very savvy turn as The Mayor, a Chicago type (only the names change) that has proved considerably more resilient than hot type.
In this man’s world, Bridgette Pechman Clarno thrives in the thankless role of the fiancee of Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers), the ace Herald Examiner reporter on the cusp of getting married and going soft for good.
The life force of this particular production is not so much Powers’ Hildy as it is Terry Hamilton as Walter Burns, that conniving editor who knows that once you have a good newspaperman in your stable, you don’t ever let him out. Powers plays Hildy as a flustered man caught in an irreconcilable tussle between editor and lover. He shows us amusing and human panic when he realizes he can’t please both at once. But he struggles more with the other, mercurial side of Hildy — the crucial edge and drive that make him a pea in a pod with editor Burns. “The Front Page” is a comedy, and this production has plenty of laughs, but it could show us yet more of the naked souls and vicious competition on display.
Still, once the terrific Hamilton shows up in the press room, the show belatedly starts to fire on every cylinder. Hamilton knows how to take the center of the room and make all the pieces around him whir — he’s at once ruthless and affectionate, the kind of surrogate dad who can get blood from a stone, in the grand Chicago newspaper tradition of such inhuman extractions
Posted at 12:37:38 PM in TimeLine Theatre