The Front Page is a screwball comedy about newspapers, which should tell you right away that it was written a long time ago. After all, any play about newspapers today would have to be a tragedy. Or maybe a dark, dark comedy. In any case, it would be grim. (For those of you reading this online, “newspapers” are old-timey, ink-printed publications full of the previous day’s news and sports scores. According to the movies, they’re written by high-functioning alcoholics who wear fedoras and talk fast).
But in 1928, when The Front Page first appeared on Broadway, the Internet was still a safe distance away, and so, therefore, was the apocalypse. Authors Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, a couple of former Chicago newspapermen themselves, filled their play with representatives of no fewer than eight—count ’em, eight—Windy City dailies, and nobody batted an eye. We learn that one paper, the Herald Examiner, can afford to hire its own thugs, and the Tribune has the means to print poetry, for god’s sake. While the mayor and the sheriff come across as craven cowards, the journalists brim with cocky confidence. There’s no talk of layoffs, buyouts, foreign bureau closings, or “doing more with less.” In fact, there’s very little, if any, mention of the bottom line at all.
Which is not to say that Hecht and MacArthur paint a rosy picture of the fourth estate. Indeed, on the surface they have nothing but disdain for the shady, grasping denizens of the fetid pressroom in the old Criminal Courts Building at 54 W. Hubbard, where the play takes place. Protagonist Hildy Johnson, an Examiner reporter who’s giving up the news racket for a wife and an advertising job, describes his fellow gentlemen of the press as “a lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.”
And yet the playwrights can’t resist journalism’s romantic allure any more than Hildy can. When he learns that a condemned prisoner has escaped from jail on the eve of his execution, Hildy forgets all about the fiancee and the respectable future and goes off in pursuit of the story with all the other buttinskis. Likewise, the script’s professions of scorn for the trade are constantly belied by its depiction of the pressroom as an irresistible whirlwind of excitement.
Given the torrent of woes that have befallen newsrooms of late, a contemporary director might be tempted to turn The Front Page into an exercise in nostalgia, if not a full-out elegy. To his credit, Nick Bowling avoids that pitfall in his surprisingly visceral staging for TimeLine Theatre Company. But he probably goes too far in the other direction.
Collette Pollard’s set ups the immediacy quotient by placing the audience on platforms within her detailed re-creation of the pressroom. The inhabitants of that room, Hildy’s newshound colleagues, come across as disreputable, boorish, viciously competitive, and concerned more with their stories than the people in them. What’s missing in this sneering, snarling interpretation is Hecht and MacArthur’s obvious delight in the milieu, their penchant for celebrating and mythologizing the ink-stained lowlifes who keep the populace informed and the powerful in check. Here, the characters are often just mean. In his attempt to avoid presenting a collection of colorful wisecrackers, Bowling manages to remove much of the play’s fizz, especially in the early going. Consequently, the comedy curdles, delivering fewer laughs than it should despite antic pacing and full-tilt performances.
Still, the production picks up steam as it goes along, thanks in large part to the late-in-the-game arrival of Terry Hamilton as Hildy’s unscrupulous editor, Walter Burns. A hilarious mix of sweaty panic and bulldog tenacity, Hamilton’s Walter is determined to drag P.J. Powers’s boyish Hildy back from the precipice of suburbia by any means necessary. Almost as soon as he takes over the operation, Hamilton restores the play’s balance and comes close to rinsing away the earlier scenes’ sour aftertaste.