Friday, April 14, 2000
Don't stop the presses for 'The Front Page'
by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Lowell Merrimack Repertory Theatre-Through April 30
Opening night for The Front Page was a mixed bag. The stage was impressively laid out, with 1920s decor and vintage telephones. An attempt was made to simulate the activity of a pressroom. Simultaneous conversations, a card game, and a banjo player, built on the atmosphere but sometimes obscured the central action. The movements on and off stage were erratic. After a ragged start, the cast seemed to pull together in the second act and the entrances and exits became more natural.
Traditionally this somewhat black comedy has served as biting critique of the press and of the local politicians. Most of the reporters are cast as biased, racist, and bigoted. The dialogue is peppered with harsh comments on immigrants and women. They care little for the truth of the stories they turn in to the papers, opting for sensationalism over accuracy. The corrupt mayor is concerned only with getting re-elected and will do anything to further his cause.
The one worthwhile reporter in town spends the entire play trying to quit his job so he can follow his fiancée to New York and work in advertising. But Hildy Johnson keeps getting pulled back by his love of reporting (and by his disreputable employer). When an escaped murderer falls into his hands, he can't tear himself away until he has gotten the scoop on the story for his paper.
The social commentary of this comedy is not the focus of this performance, which gives more attention to the slapstick, playing the roles more as comedic caricatures. The underlying message is only hinted at. Though characters were generally well matched to type, there were many times where overplayed accents made it difficult to understand what was being said. Sheriff Hartman's impersonation of Jimmy Stewart was particularly out of place, and interfered with an otherwise adequate performance.
There have been at least three movie versions of The Front Page. A 1931 Pat O'Brien/Adolph Menjou version, the 1940 Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell version (billed as His Girl Friday) or the more recent 1974 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon version . The movie versions sanitize the black humor of the stage play. This production might encourage you to sample the old movie rack at your video store.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito