The Front Page, Next Theatre Company. Never mind the plot (the pardon of a left-wing radical on death row is stalled by corrupt politicians hoping to profit from his execution). Never mind the richly detailed picture of 1928 Chicago as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur knew it. Never mind the bomber-squadron camaraderie of a press corps no crueler or kinder than the world required them to be. No, what makes The Front Page a milestone in American theater, and the archetype of a genre that continues to this day, is the swiftness with which all these elements are spun out before us. In no other modern play do the characters’ fortunes change with such dazzling speed as they do for ace reporter Hildy Johnson, his amoral and nearly omnipotent editor Walter Burns, and Earl Williams, the psychopathic schnook whose life matters to no one but his hooker girlfriend but whose death is the pawn in a citywide scramble for power.

A roller-coaster mix of farce and melodrama like this runs the risk of skidding off the rails, but Next director Sarah Tucker steers with a firm and steady hand, keeping her cast’s focus and enunciation razor-keen while never losing the music of the words or the rat-a-tat tempo. Thomas Kelly does a nice James Cagney turn as the mercurial Hildy, and Steve Pickering delivers an Orson Welles-size performance as Burns, but this is unquestionably an ensemble show, with the entire company pulling together to exhibit a physical and verbal agility so exquisite they oughta be sent to the next Olympics.

–Mary Shen Barnidge