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Since its stage debut eighty-eight years ago, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page has been celebrated for its witty, rapid-fire dialogue and madcap pace, but the latest Broadway revival, running at the Broadhurst Theatre, doesn’t quite merit front-page headlines. In the press room in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, a group of cynical, jaded newspaper reporters are awaiting the execution of Earl Williams
(John Magaro), who was convicted of killing a police officer. As men do, they sit around the dank room, playing cards, insulting one another, making sexist and racist jokes, and downing burgers in between filing reports. The motley cast of characters includes hard-boiled know-it-all Murphy (Christopher McDonald), the constantly complaining Endicott (Lewis J. Stadlen), the banjo-playing Kruger (Clarke Thorell), and the poetic germophobe Bensinger (Jefferson Mays), along with McCue (Dylan Baker), Schwartz (David Pittu) and Wilson (Joey Slotnick). In addition to the hanging, it’s also the last day on the job for star journalist Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), who is leaving for New York City to marry his fiancée, Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer). But when Williams suddenly escapes, Hildy can’t stop himself from pursuing the story, especially when Williams essentially ends up in his lap and his longtime editor, Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), preys on his journalistic sensibilities. (The Oscar-winning duo of Hecht and MacArthur, who also collaborated on Wuthering Heights and Twentieth Century, know what of they write; they were both former Chicago journalists.)
Told in three acts with two intermissions, the 165-minute production, directed by estimable three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien (who has previously directed Lane in the riotous ensemble comedy It’s Only a Play and the much more serious The Nance), never hits its stride; it needs to move like the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine-gun fire heard as Williams heads out on the lam, but instead it seems a little too cocksure as it waits for Lane to make his grand appearance more than halfway through. Lane does inject a much-needed shot of life into the proceedings, although he plays Burns with familiar Lane-ian smarm and vigor. The play, which takes place in Douglas W. Schmidt’s appropriately dim and dusty surroundings, also features Holland Taylor as Mrs. Grant, Hildy’s future mother-in-law; Sherie Rene Scott as Mollie Malloy, a close friend of Williams’s; Dann Florek as the opportunistic mayor, who is up for reelection; Danny Mastrogiorgio as Diamond Louie, Burns’s underground operative; John Goodman as the bumbling Sheriff Hartman; Patricia Conolly as cleaning woman Jennie; and Micah Stock as goofy cop Woodenshoes Eichhorn. Although it’s virtually impossible to steal any show away from Lane, particularly when he’s in full-throated, scenery-chewing form, eighty-five-year-old Tony and Emmy winner Robert Morse does just that in his small but pivotal role as Mr. Pincus, who has a special delivery for the mayor. Morse’s Mad Men castmate, Slattery, does not fare as well as Hildy, a terrific actor who seems out of place here. The chemistry between Hildy and Burns is the key to the play; over the years, the dynamic duo has been portrayed on Broadway by Lee Tracy and Osgood Perkins in 1948, Bert Convy and Robert Ryan in 1969, and Richard Thomas and John Lithgow in 1986 and on film by Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou in 1931, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday in 1940, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in 1974. It’s as if Slattery and Lane, and O’Brien and the rest of the cast, were relying on the show’s vaunted history, but in these days of the electronic 24/7 news cycle and political correctness, The Front Page — which includes racist language that has been toned down but not eliminated — feels more outdated than ever as opposed to a thrilling look at the way things used to be. It has its share of very funny and insightful moments, but it doesn’t hold up to the promise its headlines blast out.