Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Front Page" is still a merry scoop

Cleveland Press October 20, 1973

Get over to the Play House Euclid-77th theater and take a look at the sort of farce-melodrama the latest shows can only suggest but never deliver.

The Play House opened its 58th season last night with a revival of the 1928 hit play, "The Front Page." At age 45 the play isn't quite a classic but it has aged well.

This is a rollicking, exuberant, energetic, exaggerated, Iarger-than-life kind of play. It is the archetype newspaper drama in which reporters wisecrack, wear their hats on the backs of their heads and give their imaginations full rein when covering a story.

The play has been staged and played straight -- no camping, no updating. It's still a delight, an evening of fun. There's no deep meaning, no need to look for it.

Is it a bad play for all that? Not at all. If there is anything dated about "The Front Page" it is its demonstration of a kind of play writing that had but one function -- to keep audiences happy, to grab them and hold them and delight them.

Last night's audience was caught up with the excitement and impudence of the play. The melodrama was there in full force but before you could scoff at the melodramatic excitement for being what it was, the play scoffed at it first by capping every scene with a burst of cynical humor.

The setting is the reporters' room of the criminal courts building in Chicago. The place is dingy, dirty and its residents are cheerfully cynical, heartless and foul-mouthed. In another day this was fairly raucous; racy stuff. But cursing has fallen upon dark days and unless a play goes all the way with a hefty selection, of four-letter vulgarities it just isn't modern. The cursing in "The Front Page" doesn't have any four-letter words, clearly a dated work

Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur spun their several plots and wove them together well. The reporters are waiting for the early morning hanging of a convicted murderer, a hanging that will enhance the political futures of the sheriff and the mayor.

One of their number, ace reporter Hildy Johnson, has come to say farewell, to inform them that he is turning his back on this nonsense and instead is getting married and is acquiring an advertising job in New York.

But before he can say "I do" there is a jailbreak and Hildy finds himself the sole possessor of the story and, later, possessor of the escaped prisoner.

What results is a whirlwind of reporters, a bride to-be, her mother, assorted police and deputies, a kindhearted prostitute and one managing editor -- one being enough.

Managing editor Walter Burns doesn't show up until late in the second act. No character has ever entered a play so late and dominated it so completely.

He is cynical, deceptive, mean. He's a tyrant, a perfect managing editor.

James Broderick plays him in a soft-voiced, nonchalant style rather than barking or shouting. The result is a cunning, Machiavellian quality to which most managing editors can only wistfully aspire.

Burns' immediate aims are to get the story, expose the inept sheriff and conniving mayor, and block Hildy's plans. Since good guys finish last, Walter Burns, naturally, finishes first.

Victor Caroli is a fine, dapper, smooth-talking Hildy Johnson. Robert Snook bumbles beautifully as the dumb sheriff. Robert Allman is effectively venal as the mayor. Kerry Slattery is attractive as the girlfriend. Julia Curry appropriately played it straight as the girl of the streets. Evie McElroy is a small riot as the mother.

All of this is well-staged by director Thomas Gruenewald although there were moments when the play seemed to require a faster, more breathless pace.