The Front Page
Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Directed by Nick Bowling
At TimeLine Theatre in Chicago
A review by M. D. Ball of the second performance on May 28, 2011
My first exposure to this play came through two adaptations for the big screen: one that had the same title, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and the other being His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. What struck me in both these funny, energetic pictures were the cynicism and callousness of the characters, even while they seemed to honor a common line of decency that we might define as the default for civilizations organized around a live-and-let-live ideology. In the Jazz Age -- unregulated, libertine, and accidentally experimental -- it must have been exceedingly tempting to misbehave and to expect others to misbehave, a fact that may explain the choice of the words "decadence" and "hedonism" that many commentators use to characterize that era. It's logical that reporters of the time exploited sensationalism and luridness to expand their readership, and it's no less logical that a general contempt for humanity crept into their world-view. But is that condescension, which in this play falls just short of misanthropy, what we would get in an anarchy? Would our social expectations fall? And if so, would those low expectations lead everyone to gird himself in a preemptive distrust of everyone else?
The irony within this story is the concern for human beings as abstractions at the expense of concern for human beings as individuals. And in this particular story, the character's motives are simple and pragmatic. Written in 1927, Front Page is about the taste for scandal of the 1920s, the battle between the Religious Right and modernism, and the coldness that ensues from personal isolationism. This witty high-energy comedy capitalizes on real happenings in Chicago of the early 20th century, including the escape of a convicted murderer from the Cook County jail in 1921, and, in 1925, a case of corruption in the Cook County Sheriff's office involving a scheme to offer special privileges to inmates.
The single set is the press room of the Criminal Courts building in Chicago a few hours before the scheduled hanging of Earl Williams, a white man, and allegedly a Communist, who'd been convicted of murdering a black police officer. While reporters from the city's various newspapers are sitting around the room cracking wise with each other and playing cards, in bounds Hildy Johnson, a pert and conceited star reporter from the Examiner, who proceeds to boast that he's about to become respectable by quitting his job and marrying his sweetheart. During the subsequent badinage, gunfire and sirens are suddenly heard, and we quickly learn that Williams has escaped from the jail down below. All the reporters but Johnson rush out of the room to get the scoop. As Johnson decides what to do, Williams enters the room through an open window. He insists that he's not a Communist and that the shooting of the black police officer was accidental. Eventually, Johnson comes to the conclusion that Williams is a harmless victim of the scheming mayor and sheriff who colluded to secure more black votes for themselves. But being a crass opportunist, he also realizes the value of this exclusive news story. So, he hides Williams in a roll-top desk and then calls his editor, the despotic Walter Burns, to help him take Williams out of the building before the police find him.
The characters in this play are easy to cut from cardboard, especially if the director wants the play to stay at the surface as an entertaining farce. But that would do the play an injustice, given the astute, incisive script and the power of comedy to shine light in embarrassing corners. So, with perhaps two or three exceptions, the actors in this production made the characters' smugness, the brutality of their wit, and the irredeemability of their cynicism, all seem to be natural consequences of their lives and times. The brief flashes of compassion these reporters and politicians threw off during the steady flow of vitriol were consistent with the behavior of people who are aware of being jaded and who know how to temper their happy hostility, even if they're happy not looking for reasons to do so. What remains of these men's idealism functions like a strand of spider's silk suspending a heavy burden of disillusionment and bitterness.
PJ Powers gave us a Hildy Johnson who covered it all. His Hildy was juvenile but seasoned, practical but romantic, aggressive but artful, and harsh but compassionate. Because he's a composite of most of, if not all of, the other characters in this play, Hildy's personality and values drive the story forward and imply answers to the questions I posed in the first paragraph. People rarely disappointed Powers' Hildy by violating his expectations of them, but they perpetually disappointed him by forcing him to set his expectations so low. Powers fashioned a funny, realistic, and perceptibly hopeful cynic who retained sight of the difference between impossibility and improbability. Even in the midst of so much cheerful gloom in the press room, and in the world at large in the 1920s, this Hildy suggested some tiny blossoms on the otherwise barren tree. It's clear he was holding out for what he believed to be a human quality that would survive even anarchy.