Stratford Festival 2019/The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, adapted by Michael Healey, directed by Graham Abbey, Festival Theatre, Aug. 15 to Oct. 25. Tickets available at stratfordfestival.ca.
There are several takeaways from the Stratford Festival production of the American comedy classic The Front Page. It has tons of gritty atmosphere amid the laughs, actor Graham Abbey has morphed into a superb director, and, on the negative side, why mount the play in the Festival Theatre?
The Front Page was an instant hit when it opened on Broadway in 1928. The setting is the grimy pressroom at Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building. The comedy noir presents hard-boiled Chicago crime reporters on a deathwatch, aka, waiting for the hanging of white man and anarchist Earl Williams for killing a black policeman. Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur knew of what they spoke, having been Chicago newspapermen themselves.
The play has been filmed three times. The 1931 and 1974 versions follow the original characters and plot, but it is the classic 1940 movie that is most likely the inspiration for this new Stratford adaptation. Directed by Howard Hawks and called His Girl Friday, star reporter Hildy Johnson became a woman played by Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant’s ruthless editor Walter “Cookie” Burns, which transformed The Front Page into a romantic comedy with some key plot changes. Michael Healey’s adaptation for Stratford also creates a female character, but this time it is Cookie Burns who is transformed, which allows the plot to follow the original without any of the romance of the 1940 film. In this adaptation, Cookie is the wife of the late Walter Burns.
The comic/farcical elements of the play revolve around two storylines. On one hand, The Chicago Examiner’s managing editor and publisher Penelope “Cookie” Burns (Maev Beaty) wants to keep her star reporter Hildy Johnson (Ben Carlson) in town and at the paper. He is leaving the Examiner and Chicago to take a PR job in New York and marry his fiancé Peggy Grant (Amelia Sargisson), who also happens to have an annoying mother (Rosemary Dunsmore). The second thread is when Earl Williams (Johnathan Sousa) escapes from jail and falls into Hildy’s lap, an incredible scoop which suckers Hildy back into the newspaper game. What follows is a series of escapades as Hildy and Cookie try to keep the escaped Earl Williams as an Examiner exclusive. Healey has kept in many of the funny Hecht/MacArthur lines from the original play, but he has also added in some of his own to make for a very witty script.
En route we meet a host of eccentric characters. First a big shout out to the actors of the Chicago press corps who make a fabulous and unsavoury ensemble — the cynical tough guys, Fife (Randy Hughson), Endicott (John Kirkpatrick), and Kaplan (Gordon S. Miller), the laconic, banjo strumming Kruger (Jamie Mac), Wilson (E.B. Smith), a black reporter who also seems to be the only one with integrity, McLaren, the lone woman (Michelle Giroux), and the prissy and fastidious Roy V. Bensinger (Michael Spencer-Davis) who is also the butt of his colleagues’ bullying.
There is also the slimy, corrupt Mayor (Juan Chioran) and his toady, the dimwitted Sheriff Hartman (Mike Shara). These guys are hilarious together, sort of like the Abbott and Costello of Chicago’s power structure. The Mayor’s chronic irritation at the sheer stupidity of the Sheriff is some of Healey’s finest and funniest writing. We also have gangster Diamond Louis (Michael Blake), Burns’ favourite fixer, black Alderman Dwight D. Willoughby (David Collins), whose black constituents have a serious stake in Williams’ hanging, Mr. Irving Pincus (Farhang Ghajar), the nerdy messenger from the Governor’s office, the hack deputy Carl (Daniel Krmpotic), and policeman Woodenshoes Eichorn (Josue Laboucane), who loudly and constantly declaims that you can tell a person’s possible criminality from the shape of his head.
The women represent the sadder side of things. Mollie Malloy (Sarah Dodd) is heartbreaking as Earl Williams’ only friend, Mrs. Schneller (Sophia Walker) and her daughter Zelda (Emma Grabinsky) come to the pressroom looking for their reporter husband and father who drinks away his paychecks, while Jennie Stroud (Shruti Kothari), a cleaning lady in the original, but here the courthouse stenographer, is caught in the crossfire of the police shootout. Taken together, the huge cast romps through the play giving finely detailed performances. Every character adds something to the texture because Hecht and MacArthur (and Healey) were not only after laughs, but also a more substantive subtext.
And there is certainly a dark side to The Front Page and shocking things happen. In our own era of fake news, we actually see it taking place before our eyes as reporters make up stories for their newspapers. The freewheeling and blatant corruption permeating Prohibition-Era Chicago is on full display. The fact that Earl Williams is being railroaded into a hanging is to win black votes for the Mayor and the Sheriff, with an election just three days off. In fact, the sheer malevolence on the part of the Mayor in twisting the law is absolutely scandalous. The treatment of Molly Malloy and Mrs. Schneller by the press corps is not only misogynist, but downright outrageous in their lack of compassion. Healey has also beefed up the troubling racist angle which underpins the play. The cynicism of the police beat reporters takes one’s breath away, particularly when some of them want the Sheriff to move up the hanging from seven am to five am so they can make their morning editions.
Abbey’s directing style puts me in mind of the late great Neil Munro — a sort of organized chaos, with overlapping dialogue and fast and furious exits and entrances, mixed with visual gags. For example, reporter Kruger comes out of the toilet with his pants down when he hears there might be news, or the first time we see Earl Williams, he’s on a drainpipe that swings like a pendulum outside the pressroom window. With this many people in the cast, it would be easy for characters to become blurs, but Abbey has ensured that each person, no matter how small a role, gets individual treatment. Nonetheless, the key parts belong to Beaty and Carlson who are the lynchpins of the production The former has great fun portraying a hard-as-nails ex-showgirl who snagged a rich husband, and is determined to be as callous as her late spouse. Throughout the play, Carlson is the voice of reason, who greets each situation in even-handed fashion, until he has to make a choice that will affect his life and career. What makes his characterization so endearing is how Carlson handles the fact that he is torn between being a newspaperman and a fiancé.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set is so realistic you can feel the cockroaches moving among the stale food and cigarette butts that dominate the scratched desks and ramshackle chairs. Dana Osborne’s 1920 costumes are perfect for each of the characters and Kimberly Purtell’s lights accentuate the dingy gloom. Composer John Gzowski has come up with some great bluesy torch music that epitomizes the era.
So, with such a fine production in tow, what is the problem? The answer is simple. The Front Page does not work in the huge Festival Theatre. It’s a wide-open, cold space, and the audience feels scattered. We are aware of the empty seats. This play calls for a confined proscenium theatre where the audience is close enough together so we can have our collective laugh.
That being said, The Front Page is an enjoyable outing and Healey proves once again that he is one of our most acerbic and perspicacious comic writers.