WHAT “The Front Page”
WHERE Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.
INFO $67-$167; 212-239-6200; thefrontpagebroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Respectfully nostalgic, talent-stuffed revival only sparks with Nathan Lane
Nearly two hours pass before Nathan Lane, playing crusty Chicago newspaper editor Walter Burns, blows into the old press room of the Criminal Courts building, tucks his head into his shoulders as if pushing through a windstorm and barks his first inimitable “shuddup!”
Until then, the much-anticipated, talent-stuffed revival of “The Front Page” has its amusing moments. Old-fashioned screwball plot points conscientiously pile up. Retorts from the classic 1928 newspaper comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur tumble and meander along — delivered by the sweetly, maladroitly debonair John Slattery as star reporter Hildy Johnson, along with comic treasures Robert Morse and Jefferson Mays and a collection of New York theater’s top character actors with their best tough-cookie faces.
For all that — plus John Goodman as a corrupt sheriff curiously in the Southern good ol’ boy style of a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon — director Jack O’Brien’s respectfully nostalgic valentine to old-time newspaper journalism could have been subtitled “Waiting for Nathan.”
Until his Walter Burns enters toward the end of the second of three acts, we occasionally hear Lane’s voice at the other end of one of the many old-time candlestick phones into which hard-bitten reporters try to drum up tabloid-ready scoops.
But when he finally comes onstage — menacing little mustache and flipper eyebrows ablaze — the writing actually seems funnier and the style feels fresher, less creaky. And we realize, in case there lurked a corner of a doubt, that Lane really is that special.
Of course, Hecht and MacArthur did not write a one-man play with 19 characters and Lane’s electrification of the last third cannot help make the rest feel like vamping. This is high-level vamping, mind you, and O’Brien devises particular quirks for almost every character to stand out momentarily from the group.
It is the night before the hanging of an escaped anarchist (John Magaro) who’s hiding in the pressroom and is accused of shooting a “colored” cop in a red-baiting time before an election that needs the black vote. Hecht and MacArthur, both Chicago reporters in their youth, knew their territory.
Much of O’Brien’s good, huge cast has a name-that-face familiarity. Instead of playing the condemned man’s comic tart, Sherie Rene Scott makes her as tragically hard-edged as a Brecht heroine and Micah Stock has a weird German accent and terrific comic timing as the didactic young cop.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s set may not seem grimy enough, but it echoes the real building’s airy Romanesque architecture, Ann Roth’s costumes seem a bit snappy for these hacks and O’Brien opens each scene with a flashbulb pop that, despite its theatricality, freezes them into just what everyone works so hard to deny — a museum piece.