It's 1928, a dirty press room in Chicago's Criminal Courts Building. Reporters are keeping a deathwatch on the jail, where anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro) is waiting to be hanged for accidently shooting a black police officer.
Williams' hanging has become a media circus: The mayor and police chief are days away from a reelection campaign -- and they need the black vote.
Cynicism, indifference, political venality - it's all part of The Front Page, the dark comedy masterwork by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, now on Broadway at The Broadhurst. It exposes the vices of tabloid journalism with relish.
The newsroom is either killing time or abuzz with the possibility of a scoop, any new twist on the case. Fastidious reporter Bensinger (Jefferson Mays) even asks if the hanging can move up a few hours -- so he can make the morning edition.
At the top of the food chain is Hildy Johnson (an appealing, sassy John Slattery), who claims he wants out, and his demanding, scheming, story-obsessed editor Walter Burns (a volcanic Nathan Lane). Yet they eventually grab the scoop of the year: Williams has escaped -- and they're hiding him.
What ensues, once the action shifts into high gear, are high jinks, insanity and a crazed disregard for anyone or anything, save the story. With a top-notch 26-person cast, the ensemble piece cracks-wise, a humorous salute to a bygone era of newspapers and the often boorish men who populated it.
Corrupt politicians, the Red Menace and sensationalism rule the day. It's a time when, in the words of Burns, "baboons" and "bastards" ran the show. Facts? Sometimes. Mostly, it's about the sordid shenanigans to secure an exclusive -- whatever the cost.
The play is sharp and well-constructed, though the first act (of three) is all exposition. And yes, for some it may be a bit cringe-worthy, with its casual racism and misogyny. But that's the deal. The playwrights were seasoned newsmen who knew the score. As one grizzled journo puts it, his breed is "a cross between a bootlegger and a whore."
The Front Page is considered the greatest play written about the newspaper business. Later, it was made into a 1931 film version starred Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns and Pat O'Brien as Hildy Johnson. But it's cinematic apex is the brilliant 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, as Walter and Hildy.
This revival, with a spot-on set by Douglas W. Schmidt and lively direction by Jack O'Brien, hits the bull's-eye, aided by an excellent cast of stage vets, including John Goodman, Lewis J. Stadlen, Sherie Rene Scott, Dann Florek, Dylan Baker, Holland Taylor and Robert Morse.
Hearing the always-funny Nathan Lane scream invective is a lesson in comic timing. And he's got real chemistry with Slattery. Their crazy codependency is a romance all its own.
"Get me rewrite" and "stop the presses" may be a thing of the past in the digital age, but The Front Page is still big news.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes