The Wrong Page

I would pay anything to see on stage, together, Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Robert Morse, Dann Florek and a gaggle of other fine actors. So I was happy to pay “normal” price for two, tenth-row, center orchestra seats for The Front Page, where all these talents are gathered in a limited run.

The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur contribution to America’s play Hall of Fame was first written and performed in 1928, and it’s still set in 1928. Some plays are timeless, from Euripides to Death of A Salesman. This one isn’t. And a lot of that fault lies at the feet of director Jack O’Brien.

While a comedy, there are serious undertones about race and mental illness and political corruption. Surely, as these issues still exist, there should be relevance. But O’Brien has toned down the original racist language while not sanitizing it completely, meaning instead of feeling outraged by bigotry we’re merely uncomfortable with cheap epithets. The dialogue is Speed the Plow fast, which presents other problems: The audience is often laughing over ensuing lines important to the plot, and the acoustics are dreadful. I didn’t see that the actors wore microphones, nor was it apparent that the stage was miked. If they were relying on projection alone, it didn’t work, and the tenth row isn’t all that far away. Some of it was inaudible.

John Slattery was reviled by the theatrical executioners at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, but we found him to be excellent, and well-cast. Robert Morse, who first appeared on Broadway 60 years ago, has a great, small role, and on this night he actually blew a line, thinking he was in New York (where he was in reality) and not Chicago (where he was supposed to be, theatrically). The cast tried to ignore it, but the audience roared.

John Goodman is a caricature, a great talent poorly used and horribly directed. Everyone else is grand. Except for Nathan Lane.

Mr. Lane owns the show and he’s beyond great. He’s a disembodied phone voice until the second act, when he proceeds to chew the scenery, the stage, the curtain, and the front several rows. He saves the night, which is long, three acts and two intermissions. The entire first act is exposition and background that could readily be abandoned, unless there are legal issues with the owners of the material. It was 45 minutes, but in dog years. This is a three-hour play with two hours of material.

They get away with a single set, some obvious bits, and some stereotypical characters, but Mr. Lane’s totally amoral newspaper publisher is a sight to behold. “No one,” he laments at one point critiquing John Slattery’s prose, “reads the second paragraph.”

No one would stay after the first act if Mr. Lane weren’t in the second.

© Alan Weiss 2016

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