In their penultimate play of the 2017-2018 season, the Providence Players of Fairfax tackle the world of yellow journalism and Chicago crime in the classic 1928 stage comedy “The Front Page.”
The original play, which is presented word-for-word here minus the racist language, is a significantly different beast than the array of popular adaptations over the years because it has two male leads (played here by Chuck O’Toole as Hildy Johnson and David Whitehead as Burns). So rather than a budding romance that other iterations of the play have used, the central relationship is not an opportune union but a troublesome codependency.
With the entirety of the play confined to a single set — the reporter’s bullpen of the Cook County courthouse — the play is largely a comedy of errors: People frantically leaving and entering the scene with various states of incomplete information.
As such, the primary laughs come here from physical comedy rather than dialogue-based humor. Whitehead cuts an imposing physical presence as Burns and knows how to milk physical humor from his growls and frenzied hand motions.
When asked why the Providence Players chose “The Front Page,” director Michael Donahue spoke of the desire to do a period piece and something that could accommodate many of his adult male actors.
Watching this play, it’s not surprising that there might be a dearth of male talent as the actresses steal many of the scenes including Andra Whitt as Molly Malloy, Jaclyn Robertson as Peggy Grant (Hildy’s fiancé) and Susan D. Garvey as Mrs. Grant. Additionally, it’s clear that the costuming department had a field day with this one as the characters are dressed in full-period detail with extra attention to give the reporters a blue collar look.
If there’s one weakness of the production, it is that much of the play’s first act is mired in heavy dialogue which lacks the engaging bounce and rhythm of a screwball comedy. It can muddle together much of the quick plot turns and physical hijinks that don’t take place until the second act. The density of the dialogue can also make it difficult to gain key plot points such as the political motivations behind staying the execution or the contrast between what the death row inmate Earl Williams (played by Bobby Welsh) was charged with and just how dangerous he actually is.
Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were rival reporters in that 1920s Chicago crime scene before connecting in New York literary circles and partnering professionally. The circulation wars between Chicago’s leading newspapers was so fervent that it’s often linked to the heyday of yellow journalism. One of the most famous examples, occurring the same year “The Front Page” was released, was when reporter Tom Howard out-scooped his competition by sneaking a camera through his ankle into an execution chamber and capturing a prisoner being electrocuted.
When Hildy laments to the other reporters that they’ll all be working on a copy desk until they’re 90, it’s an eerie reminder to many who either recognized the value of or work in journalism, that throughout every era, it’s a profession of financial uncertainty. The film started out as an indictment of yellow journalism and much of the criticisms of Chicago’s era also apply today in yellow journalism’s modern-day equivalent of click bait. At the same time, the film serves as a loving ode to an era when reporting was vital and exciting for those involved in it.
The most innovative contribution to Donahue’s staging is the transition of scenes with the simulation of a flash bulb using sound effects and a quick fade out in lighting. As written in the program in the director’s notes, “It is my desire to capture that photo album nostalgia that the playwrights of ‘The Front Page’ created.” Whether you’ll like the characters or find them flawed, it’s a sure bet that the play will take you to an exciting era worth visiting.
“The Front Page” will be playing at the James Lee Community Center (2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church) this weekend and next weekend. Tickets can be purchased at providenceplayers.org.