26 November 2016

Ragamuffin Day


[At the beginning of this month, I posted a tribute to my late mother, who died in May 2015 at 92.  (See “Mom,” 1 November.)  I wrote about some of the things we did together for fun, from my childhood when we still did things as a family to the more recent years when my mother and I were alone to amuse ourselves.  About a month ago, an article in the New York Times reminded me of another connection to my mom—not something we had done together, but something we talked about.  The coincidence was a little too strong for me to overlook, so I’ve written about the connection and the historical background the Times article revealed.  You may find it interesting, especially if you have a link to New York City through someone in your past.]

Years ago, my mother told me about something she remembered from her childhood that she couldn’t explain.  Mom was a native New Yorker but moved to New Jersey with her family when she was very young—about 7, I think, which would make it around 1930.  But there was still a lot of family in New York City—my grandfather, for instance, had three sisters who all had daughters around my mother’s age with whom Mom was very close—so my grandparents and their two daughters used to drive into the city often for visits, family events, and holidays.

One of those holidays was Thanksgiving and my mother’s family drove in via lower Manhattan, presumably through the Holland Tunnel (the Lincoln didn’t open until Mom was 14).  Mom said she remembered seeing kids downtown—in the lower Village, it seemed—all dressed in costumes like Halloween, except on Thanksgiving, but she couldn’t remember what it was for.  I questioned her to be sure she wasn’t confusing two memories (we were talking about what may have been an 80-year-old memory from when she was very young).  She insisted she remembered just what she told me.

I had no idea what Mom could have been recalling.  Obviously, nothing like that has gone on since I’ve lived here.  I also had no idea how to look up something like that, but I wrote to the New York Times.  As some readers may know, the Sunday paper has a column called “F.Y.I.” (now published occasionally in the “Metropolitan” section, but which previously appeared weekly in that section’s predecessors) that fields questions from readers about the New York metro area just like this one.  Unfortunately, the Times never ran the query and I never followed up.

As it happens, when I was at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the Village with my friend Diana early last month, we walked over to Hudson Street-8th Avenue to catch a cab back up to my neighborhood where she left her car.  The location prompted me to tell her Mom’s story—but even though Diana’s a New Yorker, too, and older than I, she hadn’t ever heard of kids dressing up in costumes at Thanksgiving.

Well, I was reading the Times on Saturday night, 22 October, including the parts of the Sunday edition that come with the Saturday paper.  Among those was the “Metropolitan” section, which that week contained an “F.Y.I.” column, responding to the question:

Before Halloween trick-or-treating caught on, wasn’t there a different holiday in New York in which costumed children went around asking for treats?  

Lo and behold! the answer was all about Ragamuffin Day.  Observed on Thanksgiving Day, kids dressed as thieves, beggars, bums, and hobos and went door to door asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?”  Neighbors handed out pennies and other swag.  In some communities, there were even ragamuffin parades, precursors of today’s Thanksgiving Day parades.  Ragamuffin Day was popular in New York City—a few other places also had it—from before the turn of the 20th century until about 1941, when Congress formally established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November and Halloween became a popular unofficial celebration of ghosts and goblins when kids got dressed up.  That’s the exact time-frame Mom was talking about in her recollection!

It’s terrific that entirely by accident—though synchronicity and serendipity played a part, I think—Mom’s vague memory that I could never confirm or even identify has been documented.  I did a quick search of the New York Times archive and there are plenty of old articles referencing ragamuffins and Google Images has photos from the 1900s through the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s of kids in costume for Ragamuffin Day. 

The story of Ragamuffin Day seems to be as follows (I’ve had to piece this account together from numerous sources and there are some, mostly inconsequential, discrepancies):

Thanksgiving had always been a traditional holiday, even during colonial times.  It’s basic purpose was the same as today: celebrate the harvest, honor the first settlers who braved harsh conditions and uncertainty, and make a gesture of gratitude and friendship to the American natives the Europeans displaced.  But it was observed on different days as local traditions arose and with many different rituals and practices—often a meal of some kind, but not always.  Customs ranged from elaborate feasts to displays of charity to religious observations to parades and pageants to games and athletic competitions (a forerunner, perhaps, of the football bowl games today’s celebrants like to watch).

In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” and set the day of observance as the last Thursday of November.  The proclamation, however, had the force of an executive order and had to be reissued by each succeeding president—who could, although any seldom did, change the particulars of the day or date of the observance.  Then in 1941, both houses of Congress passed a resolution setting the date for the official Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November (which occasionally has five Thursdays) every year.

Though Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, was a Christian holiday since the Middle Ages (it may have been a Christianized pagan celebration that predates even that, but that origin’s disputed), it was not an important holiday in America until the mid-19th century when large numbers of Irish, who had been observing All Hallow’s Eve  for centuries, and Scottish immigrants arrived.  Other immigrant groups, such as Germans and later Africans, added their national traditions as well, making Halloween in the United States a uniquely American celebration.  Observance was confined to the immigrant community until the late 19th century, however, and wasn’t assimilated into the mainstream society until the 20th century.  By the first decade of the new century, Halloween had become a popular celebration among all strata of U.S. society across the whole country, irrespective of ethnicity or faith.  Civic organizations and schools even got into the act, transforming what had really been an ad hoc festival into an unofficial but universally sanctioned holiday.  By the 1920s and ’30s, Halloween parties for adults as well as children became fashionable and the religious, occult, and superstitious aspects of the holiday fell away, making it about secular fun, community, and enjoyment.  It was at this time, too, that the practice of trick-or-treating was revived—possibly transferred from the waning observance of Ragamuffin Day. 

According to one report, the ragamuffin tradition stemmed from the late 18th century, “when grown homeless men, during the holidays, would dress in women’s clothing and beg for food and money.”  Some believe that its origins are in the immigrant communities in the cities who brought their folk traditions to America with them but no longer had a celebration onto which to graft them.  So they borrowed Thanksgiving for their carnival masquerade.  The mummery became popular among the native-born who spread the practice throughout New York City.

From about 1870, however, children in New York City and some other cities and towns dressed up as “ragamuffins” (shabbily clothed, dirty children, according to the American Heritage Dictionary) in exaggerated rags and cast-offs too big for them (often their parents’ old duds), generally wearing masks or face-paint (charcoal or burnt cork was commonly used as “make-up”), and went from house to house asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?”  On Friday, 1 December 1899, the day after Thanksgiving was celebrated in New York that year, a Times article reported:

The chief feature of the day was the street charivari, not only of the girls and boys, but of young men and women.  Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal.  Fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city.  Not a few of the maskers and mummers wore disguises that were recognized as typifying a well-known character or myth.  There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits, Deweys, and Columbines that well supported their roles.  The mummery, as a rule, was limited to boys in women’s skirts or in masks.  In the poorer quarters a smear of burnt cork and a dab of vermillion sufficed for babbling celebrants.  Some of the masqueraders were on bicycles. others on horseback, a few in vehicles.  All had a great time.  The good-humored crowd abroad was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.

(Note that November of 1899 was one, the last Thursday of which was the fifth one.  A charivari, or shivaree, is a “loud, cacophonous noise or hubbub,” according to Wiktionary.  The “vehicles” some maskers rode were probably horse-drawn carriages or carts, but the horseless carriage, though not yet common on the streets—and quite expensive—was invented more than 20 yeas earlier.  Columbine is a stock character in Renaissance Italian commedia dell’Arte and the English harlequinades or pantomimes, popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, derived from them.  She’s depicted as a lovely young woman, dressed as a serving girl, to whom Harlequin is romantically attracted.  Dewey seems to be the philosopher John Dewey, 1859-1952, though I don’t understand why New York ragamuffins would want to dress like him; somehow I doubt it’s a reference to Melvil Dewey, 1851-1931, the librarian who invented the Dewey Decimal System of cataloguing books; New York State Governor Thomas E. Dewey, 1902-71, wasn’t even born when the article above was written.  If anyone has a more likely idea, I’d love to hear it!  I can’t begin to guess why children would dress like Filipinos—except that the United States had annexed the archipelago the year before as booty from the Spanish-American War and then the hard-fought and bloody Philippine-American War, 1898-1902.  Why any of that history would inspire Ragamuffin Day costumes, I don’t see.)

One Virginia reporter in 1911 described the scene in the streets of New York:

On that one day at least the children literally take possession of the streets, ride all over the street cars, even on the fenders; impersonate Uncle Sam, George Washington and other characters that suit their fancy; dress in all sorts of costumes, that of the ragamuffin having the preference; mask, black their faces, parade, blow horns, ride sorry horses, prance astride of broomsticks and generally enjoy themselves to the limit of their temporary liberty.

It wasn’t uncommon for boys to dress in travesties of their mothers’ attire, as noted by John J. O’Leary (b. 1932) in Playing It Well (Trafford Publishing, 2011): “[W]e would dress up in . . . Mother’s old clothes, make up our faces with . . . Mother’s face powder, lipstick and rouge to go from door to door in the neighborhood.”  Even in her beloved 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith writes that her main character’s brother, Neely Nolan, dressed in

one of mama’s discarded dresses hacked off ankle length in the front to enable him to walk.  The uncut back made a dirty dragging train.  He stuffed wadded newspapers in the front to make an enormous bust.  His broken-out brass-tipped shoes stuck out in front of the dress.  Lest he freeze, he wore a ragged sweater over the ensemble.  With this costume, he wore the death mask and one of papa’s discarded derbies cocked on his head.  Only it was too big and wouldn’t cock and rested on his ears.

The treats that the ragamuffins (also known as Thanksgiving Maskers) collected were generally pennies, fruit, and candy.  In a 1909 sermon, the Rev. James M. Farrar, a minister and the former president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, advised children on the best way to amass the most swag:

On Thanksgiving morning put on old, patched but warm shoes; old, ragged but warm clothes; paint your face or put on masks and then go out into the crisp morning for an hour[’]s fun.  Collect all the pennies the people will give; get dimes and dollars if you can.  Tell the people the money is for the poor.  Then scamper home.

(Reverend Farrar then counseled his young parishioners to bring the money to the church when they came for Thanksgiving services and put it in the offering plate.) 

Later, as the practice became more widespread and popular, the costumes became more diverse, beginning to resemble those worn later in the 20th century at Halloween, such as Indians, devils, Uncle Sams, harlequins, bandits, sailors, and characters from cartoons and popular children’s fiction such as Huck Finn, Tiger Lilly, and Long John Silver; eventually Disney characters and even objects and figures like alarm clocks and Michelangelo joined the throng.  During the Great Depression (approximately 1929-39), as you might imagine, Ragamuffin Day was especially popular—and the phenomenon drew to an end at about the same time that the economic crisis did.  By then, Thanksgiving Day had become formalized and circumspect and the ragamuffin parades had morphed into an organized and regulated Thanksgiving Day parade (the one in New York City sponsored by R. H. Macy & Co. began in 1924, the year the Herald Square store opened) and dressing up for Halloween and going trick-or-treating became the popular (and slightly anarchic) phenomenon we know today.  (In New York there’s also famously a less-regulated parade through Greenwich Village on Halloween night since 1974.)

It would have been during the Depression years, essentially between about 1930 and and the end of the practice in the early 1940s, when my mother and her family would have driven into Manhattan and up through the Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen (now known as Clinton) to the Upper West Side, where Mom’s aunts and cousins all lived.  Given the popularity of Ragamuffin Day, it’s hardly surprising that an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old girl would have noticed the clutches of children her own age costumed and engaging in what we now call “trick-or-treating” around their neighborhoods.  (Mom never said that she and her sister, four years younger, or the cousins who were Mom’s playmates had gone out on Thanksgiving dressed as ragamuffins.  She may therefore also have been a little envious.)

The practice was accepted by many, like Reverend Farrar (who actually encouraged it) and others were simply resigned to its continuation; but a few decades later, some New Yorkers began to call for ending the begging and mocking the poor.  In the words of A Tree Grows, “The street was jammed with masked and costumed children making a deafening din with their penny tin horns,” and storekeepers even sometimes locked their doors “to keep the noisy panhandlers out.”  The get-ups could be truly frightening (think Lon Chaney, Sr., in some of this horror roles) and the ragamuffins occasionally turned dangerous and even violent as rival gangs of ragamuffins pulled weapons on each other.  Bonfires were a common accompaniment to the revelry, too, and, one report noted, tragic results sometimes occurred when the billowing costume of a child dancing around the flames could catch fire. 

Eventually, newspapers, clergy, and city and school officials railed against the footloose ragamuffins and the begging and police cracked down on the rowdy maskers.  The raucous revelry clashed with the more solemn import that Thanksgiving had come to embody: the family gathering and celebration of the harvest bounty.  By about 1930, the New York Times reported, “The ragamuffin is vanishing,” but “persists somewhat . . . tenaciously” in “places where the subway lines end”—such as the south end of Hudson Street on the Lower West Side, where my mother appeared to remembered seeing the “gamins . . . in their mothers’ dresses and with their fathers’ suits hanging limply on them.”  The immense popularity of the Macy’s parade, which became a national event with the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, and the rise in the observance of Halloween began to pare away at the practice of Ragamuffin Day.  The dampening effect of Prohibition, 1920-33, may also have had some bearing.  Alcohol consumption was an impetus to much of the revelry among the adults.  A cop, who seemed to bemoan the passing of the tradition, remarked that groups of men

used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costumes and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells.  And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.  But now—without any be[e]r or anything—

The policeman let his sentence trail off, as if lamenting the loss.

By 1940, the Madison Square Boys Club, which since the 1930s had campaigned against Ragamuffin Day, held its own Thanksgiving parade with over 400 children marching and carrying a banner bearing the slogan “American boys do not beg.”  The last mention of a Thanksgiving Day ragamuffin parade in the Times was in 1956.  (That event was in the Bronx.  The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge still holds a Ragamuffin Parade in late September or early October.)

After reading the New York Times’ “F.Y.I.” column in October, I compiled the facts presented here.  Once I had a viable key phase, it was easy to find loads of information.  I’d love to be able to call my mother and tell her I can now ID her memory and explain what she had seen back in the ’30s.  Unfortunately, the column came out three or four years too late.  Isn’t that remarkable—and yet a little sad?  Mom’s past caring now, of course; but I feel cheated out of a chance to give her this perfect little pleasure.  I know exactly how she’d have reacted, too.  I’ll have to be content with that.

21 November 2016

'"Master Harold" . . . and the boys'


I’ve written a number of times that Athol Fugard taught the world more about conditions in apartheid South Africa with his plays than all the essayists, news reporters, and lecturers combined (see my posts “Degrading the Arts,” published on 13 August 2009; “The Relation of Theater to Other Disciplines,” 21 July 2011; “Culture War,” 6 February 2014).  A prime example of what I mean is Fugard’s fine 1982 composition “Master Harold” . . . and the boys, now in revival at the Signature Theatre under the playwright’s own direction.

The production is part of STC’s Legacy Program for the 2016-17 season, the first under Paige Evans’s artistic directorship.  (Evans took over this year from James Houghton, STC’s founder, when he retired in June.  Houghton died of stomach cancer in August at the age of 57.)  Fugard was the Residency One playwright at Signature for the 2011-12 season, the inaugural STC season at the Pershing Square Signature Center.  The Signature revival of Master Harold started performances on STC’s Irene Diamond Stage, the 294-seat proscenium house, on 18 October and opened on 7 November; it’s currently scheduled to close on 11 December, after two extensions.  (The show’s original closing was 27 November and it was extended once already through 4 December.)  My subscription partner. Diana, and I saw the 7:30 performance on the evening of Wednesday, 9 November.)

“Master Harold” . . . and the boys was first staged at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on 9-27 March 1982 by Fugard with Željko Ivanek as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and Danny Glover as Willie.  When the production moved to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, premièring on 4 May 1982 to 26 February 1983 (344 performances), Lonny Price replaced Ivanek as Hally.  The play was revived by the Excaliber Shakespeare Company in Chicago in 1997 and by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2005.  Master Harold returned to Broadway for 49 performances in 2003, staged by Lonny Price with Glover switching to the role of Sam.

Originally banned from production in South Africa, the play premièred at Fugard’s Market Theatre in Johannesburg on 22 March 1983, once again directed by the author.  The production, whose opening night audience included such luminaries as Nobel Prize-winning novelist  Nadine Gordimer and Bishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, left many in its audience in tears.  In 2012, Master Harold was revived in Fugard’s native land and again in 2013 in Afrikaans (translated by Idil Sheard as Master Harold en die Boys).  The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, staged the play in the summer of 2016.

In 1985, Showtime, the cable TV network, and the Public Broadcasting System televised an adaptation of the play by Fugard, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg with Matthew Broderick as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and John Kani as Willie.  Lonny Price helmed a South African film production based on a screenplay by Nicky Rebello in  2010 starring Freddie Highmore as Hally and Ving Rhames as Sam; the film opened up the play considerably, adding many characters who never appear on stage, including Hally’s parents. 

Master Harold takes place in 1950, one year after the passage of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in the Union of South Africa (the Republic was declared in 1961), and the year the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act, and the Suppression of Communism Act were passed, the first legal mechanisms formalizing what Prime Minister D. F. Malan, elected in 1948 by the white minority who alone were allowed to vote, called apartheid, the policy of “separateness,” that prevailed until 1994.  (In my report on Fugard’s Blood Knot, 28 February 2012, I included a brief history of apartheid.)  The play is set in Port Elizabeth, a coastal city 550 miles south of Johannesburg where three-year-old Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard moved with his family from his birthplace in Middleburg, 215 miles north. The play is largely autobiographical, down to the characters’ names: young Fugard was, indeed, called Hally as a boy and his family’s employees in the St. George’s Park Tea Room were Sam Semela and Willie Malopo, who became his friends and his teachers.  At the age of 17, Hally is seeing the world around him change just as he’s growing from a boy into a man, and he reflects the changes in his country; “Master Harold” . . . and the boys is both the story of Athol Fugard’s coming of age, and of South Africa’s as well: Hally is both the young playwright and his native land, both on the cusp of destiny. 

The characters and events of this play reflect the people and events of South Africa—but the play’s characters are also actual people from Fugard’s past dealing with circumstances that actually happened to them in their lives.  I’ll be addressing this more in a bit, but one of the things that I think makes Fugard such a marvelous playwright and makes his depictions of social and political themes (that is, apartheid and its repercussions) so engaging is that he makes them universal topics that speak to people far beyond South Africa, and he makes them personal—or personalized—issues rather than socio-political theses. As Nathaniel French, Signature Theatre Company literary associate, put it in an interview with the dramatist, “For more than 50 years, . . . Athol Fugard has challenged the world’s conscience with his incisive portraits of individuals grappling with the intimate repercussions of systemic injustice.”  This quality was first evident in 1961’s Blood Knot (revived at Signature in 2012) and continued throughout Fugard’s long career.  As with the characters in his other plays, Hally, Sam, and Willie aren’t metaphors or allegories, they’re real people—not least because they, in fact, are real people—who address real problems on a human and personal scale.  That’s why I say Fugard’s plays are more powerful as consciousness-raisers and instructors than reports and essays: he makes them touch us with his humanity.

“Master Harold” . . . and the boys shows how the institutionalized racism, bigotry, and hatred of apartheid (and, by extension, Jim Crow and its echoes) can become absorbed by those on both sides of the divide who live under it.  As “Hally” Fugard grew into a young man, the Union of South Africa began building its brutal racist regime of apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “apartness.”  Fugard absorbed the entitlement afforded him by his white skin.  His father, who was disabled by a childhood injury and needed crutches to get around, was also a drunk and it frequently fell to his young son, with Sam’s help, to retrieve him from the local saloon.  Though Fugard learned a love of music and stories from his father, the man was also a typical South African racist, the playwright has said; it was his mother who taught him a sense of justice.  Fugard also developed lifelong friendships with two of the black men who worked for his mother in the Jubilee Boarding House and later the St. George’s Park Tea Room, Sam Semela and Willie Malopo.  Sam, in fact, “was the father I wanted, a decent, good man, generous, full of laughter, caring . . .,” recalled the playwright.  “But how can a white boy in the apartheid years have a black man as a surrogate father?” he wondered.  On rainy days, when no one came to use the park, Sam and Fugard discussed literature, science, history, culture, philosophy, and the passage from childhood into manhood.  Once when Fugard was embarrassed by his father’s frequent public drunkenness, it was Sam who cheered him up by putting together a homemade kite and teaching the boy to fly it to provide him with an accomplishment of which he could be proud.  “I ended up sitting holding the string and admiring my kite, but Sam couldn’t sit down because, by a very brutal irony of South Africa, there was a sign: ‘Whites Only.’”  One afternoon, after the two argued, Fugard spat in Sam’s face.  In a moment, everything changed between them and that act haunted Fugard for decades. 

Thirty years later, the dramatist wrote “Master Harold” . . . and the boys out of that experience, incorporating in the drama all the confusion, helplessness, and misplaced anger Hally feels.  “That little schoolboy in the tearoom on that rainy afternoon when his company is the two black servants who work in the tearoom,” explained Fugard, “that whole setting comes directly from my youth.”  He’d been trying to compose a play about Sam and Willie, “two men [who] were so important in my life that I just felt a need to somehow celebrate them in a play.”  But the playwright “couldn’t find the element that created the drama, the tension and the demand for resolution that theatre usually involves.”  He started to think about writing Master Harold because it gave him “a chance to publicly reckon with one of the most disgraceful moments in my private life, which is when I spat in Sam’s face.”  “‘My God, you’ve got a lot to answer for, Master Harold,’” Fugard thought. “And suddenly I put Master Harold into the equation with Sam and Willie, and like Einstein I ended with E=MC2.”  But he “feels as if somebody else wrote that play, not myself,” and when literary associate French suggested he wrote Master Harold with Sam Semela, the dramatist responded enthusiastically, “That’s correct, that’s correct.  That’s really not a bad way of putting it!”

At the start of the play, it is, indeed, raining, and Willie is practicing ballroom steps for a major competition.  (The choreography is by Peter Pucci.)  In between chores to close up the tea room for the day, Sam, the more sophisticated of the men, is coaching him.  Uneducated, Sam is wise in the ways of the human soul—and smart enough to understand—and remember—just about anything Hally explains to him from his schoolbooks.  When 17-year-old Hally arrives after school, he sets about doing his homework and the bantering among the three begins.  Hally’s intelligent enough to see that something serious is about to happen to his world and he’s innately good enough to be concerned.  The young man learns that his mother has gone to the hospital where his sick father is interned and soon she calls to say she’ll be bringing him home that afternoon.  Hally has always had a conflicted and chilly relationship with his father.  Bitter and distraught, Hally, misdirecting his anger at his father, lashes out at Sam, who’s tried to help the young man accept his father even with his failings.  Hally tells a crude, racist joke and demands that Sam no longer call him “Hally” but “Master Harold.”  (Willie has always called the young man “Master Hally.”)  Sam warns the young man that this will be a step he can’t take back once made—it will alter everything.  Then Hally spits in Sam’s face and leaves the tea room.  As the play ends, Sam and Willie dance together to the music of the tea room’s juke box, hoping things are “going to be okay tomorrow.” 

(A word about that ballroom dancing which frames the play:  It became a popular and important outlet for creativity and pleasure for black South Africans even before apartheid was formalized.  Having caught on in the country among the European settlers as early as the 17th century, it began to be opened up to even working-class white South Africans by the 20th century, greatly inspired by U.S. culture, especially the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Blacks, though, were still excluded, by both laws and by economics.  So black South Africans started their own dance events, including competitions, in the segregated townships in which they were required to live.  Dance parties and clubs were oases of pleasure and a kind of freedom of spirit that was denied them in their everyday lives, particularly once the racial laws establishing apartheid as the governing principle of the land were enacted.  As Fugard, a ballroom champion himself when he was a boy, explains the attraction: “It was just the music, the fact that you moved your body through space while beautiful music was filling your ears.“  In the play, when Hally asks, “For God’s sake, Sam, you’re not asking me to take ballroom dancing serious, are you?” Sam responds, “There’s no collisions out there, Hally.  Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else.  That’s what that moment is all about.”  Soon, ballroom dancing became a distinctive part of the black culture of South Africa in a similar sense to township music, introduced to the U.S. with the success of Paul Simon’s 1986 fusion album, Graceland.)

Diana found “Master Harold” . . . and the boys talky, but I find it less a talk play than, say, Oslo or New Jerusalem (see my reports on 13 August 2016 and 20 April 2014, respectively).  There isn’t a lot of “action” in Master Harold, but there’s considerable “activity” (including the ballroom dancing).  The talk is largely conversation, not all lecture and point-making (though there’s some of that, too).  Further, Oslo and New Jerusalem are dissertations, one on Middle East politics and the other on philosophy (Spinozan) and theology; Master Harold disguises the political and social themes Fugard’s presenting as a relationship between Hally (who, beside being Fugard, is also the embodiment of the emerging South African nation) and Sam and Willie (the black South African people).  It’s actually quite interesting and even clever, from a dramaturgical point of view.  It must have been really startling in the 1980s, when apartheid was in full swing—especially in its South African première in ‘83.  (Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Fugard’s drama—lyrical in design, shattering in impact—is likely to be an enduring part of the theater long after most of this Broadway season has turned to dust.”)

I think some of the appeal of Master Harold despite the lack of action—at least to me—is that apartheid, especially as Fugard presents it, in the guise of three ordinary people, is a more visceral topic than the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza in New Jerusalem or the development of the Oslo Accords (which ultimately failed).  As Newsday’s Linda Winer put it, “Fugard has taken people from very far away and made their lives so real that they resound beyond the impersonal facts of distant news stories.”  It’s a little like Arthur Miller presenting the McCarthy commie witch-hunts in the guise of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible by presenting real, ordinary people instead of historical bold-face names.  And just as the implications of McCarthyism and the threat of a HUAC continue to be relevant long after the 1950s, the effects of institutionalized racism and the essence of apartheid still impact us today, even here in the Unites States and even after the official policy has been dismantled in South Africa. 

Unlike any of these other plays, though, Master Harold at base is about the most supreme human characteristic.  As Fugard puts it: “You know, I spat in Sam’s face and Sam forgave me.”  Then he expands that point: “But I think, in essence, what Sam demonstrates—what Sam gives us hope for—is love.  How big love can be.”  That makes “Master Harold” . . . and the boys redemptive—and I think that’s what makes the play irresistibly compelling.  Hally has committed a repulsive act; he seems to be taking on the racist characteristics of the South African nation as inexorably as the characters of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros turn into beasts.  But we know that in the real world, young Hally Fugard becomes adult Athol Fugard, a fighter for justice and equality—and that racist South Africa ultimately throws off its apartheid mantle and, its continuing hardships notwithstanding, constitutes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to ease the transition with, if not exactly universal love, then at least tolerance and less bitterness and recrimination.  Sam’s “act of forgiveness,” which Fugard sees as “a lesson of which this world is still so in need,” may have made its impact at least a little.

The production of Master Harold, which runs an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, is excellent, and I found it a compelling play.  Diana and I both had some trouble with the very thick (though authentic-sounding) South African accents, however.  I think Fugard and dialect coach Barbara Rubin overdid it for an American audience.  Nonetheless, the performances are stellar.  The easy camaraderie between  Leon Addison Brown’s Sam  and Sahr Ngaujah’s Willie  set the tone of the production and its depiction of the three-character relationship.  Fugard has worked as director-playwright with both actors before, Brown in The Train Driver (2012 at Signature) and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek (2015 world première at STC), and Ngaujah in Painted Rocks.  (I saw both these productions—reports are on 20 September 2012 and 3 July 2015, respectively—though Ngaujah had left Painted Rocks due to injury by the time I saw it.  I did see Ngaujah in María Irene Fornés’s Drowning, part of the Signature Plays this past spring, reported in ROT on 3 June  2016, and he’s best known for his performance in the title role in Fela! on Broadway in 2009-11 for which he received a Theatre World Award as well as Drama Desk and Tony nominations.  Among Brown’s other credits are August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, 2006, and Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle, 2010, both at STC; the report on OHC was posted on 25 and 28 February 2010, but there is no report on Two Trains because it predates ROT.)

Fugard says that he’s worked with some of the same actors multiple times because “we begin to understand each other more and I begin to understand how to challenge them. . . .  If I’ve got the actors that can rise to the challenge, I use them again and again.”  He spoke specifically of Brown, but the comfort these artists have developed from working together so many times is evident in the performances of Sam and Willie here.  (It certainly helps, of course, how lovingly the author portrayed the men in the script and no doubt he added to that background during the rehearsals.)  Sam is the more worldly of the men, and Brown demonstrates that in the older-brotherliness with which he treats Willie as he guides his coworker through his dance steps.  At the same time, Sam can be almost pupil-like with Hally when it comes to academic subjects even as he takes the part of surrogate father in matters of behavior and character.  When Hally becomes enraged with him for what ought to seem like a triviality—it isn’t to Hally, of course—Brown is downright gentle, almost zen-like (though neither he not Hally would have been likely to know that philosophy in 1950 South Africa, I wouldn’t imagine), seeing what’s coming.  Even after Hally spits in his face, Brown’s Sam holds firm but dignified, sympathetic but worried what Hally’s act might portend.

Willie, for all his callow boyishness, is still a complex man.  His insouciant manner at work and his preoccupation with dancing, which add some humor to the play, make him seem feckless, but we know that he has a violent streak, especially against women.  Ngaujah wisely doesn’t play this dark aspect of the character—it’s just there: we know it, Sam knows it, but Hally probably doesn’t.  If Sam and Willie are reflections of black South Africans under apartheid, this is the roiling dangerous element that’s building up.  Ngaujah threads this needle very neatly; though his Willie is the one who consistently plays the subordinate to Hally’s young master, he’s also the one who presents the potential, if unseen, threat. 

The newcomer to this ensemble is Noah Robbins, the 26-year-old actor from Potomac, Maryland, who made such an impression on reviewers and audiences alike for his portrayal of Eugene Jerome in the Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in 2009.  A youthful-looking 19 then (the character is 15 in the play), just out of a Washington, D.C., prep school, Robbins has clearly deepened and broadened his capabilities.  (Coincidentally, his role in Brighton Beach was originally played by Matthew Broderick—who also played Hally in the TV movie version of Master Harold.)  His Hally is the epitome of a boy about to become a man, a little too smart for his britches but at the same time slightly awed by the maturity and wisdom of the older Sam.  I could feel the conflict between his innate character, the boy who loves and respects Sam and Willie and relies on Sam for life’s guidance he can’t get from his father, and the new-born young man of a new South Africa where he’s the designated master by virtue not of any superior accomplishments, but of his birth.  All gangly and willowy, Robbins can shift from adolescent braggadocio to mean-spirited haughtiness and back again without seeming to shift gears.  The balance is delicate, but the actor pulls it off cleanly.  (Hally is in danger of being perceived as a supremacist bully in the making, but the presence of Brown’s Sam helped me greatly to keep in perspective what I discerned was happening within the boy.  Knowing the developments beyond the confines of the tea room, though they’re not part of the play’s text, also informed my judgment.)  Robbins makes Hally’s sense guilt over the spitting incident, mixed with his remaining anger and confusion, palpable,

As director, Fugard fosters the interrelationships among the three characters and he clearly knows not only what he wants—he should, of course—but how to get it from the actors.  (This is where it becomes an advantage for a playwright to stage his own works, though I have often complained about this decision.  Fugard seems to be an exception—Horton Foote was another—to my caveat against playwright-directors.  There’s also a demonstration here of a director who’s worked with certain actors before gaining a benefit from that familiarity as well.)  Fugard is also able, because he understands this material—both the crafted play and the socio-historical grounding—so intimately, to avoid the blatant exposure of the action’s underpinnings and stage only the core truth.  He knows what to trust and what needs showing so that the performance becomes more natural and real and, as a consequence, more touching and revealing. 

Christopher H. Barreca’s tea room set is not quite cozy but also not cold or forbidding—like, perhaps, South Africa on the verge of a new regime which hasn’t quite taken permanent hold yet.  The torrential rain outside the big picture window, portentous as it is in its power to drive everyone away from the tea room, also adds an element of gloom inside the restaurant, isolating it from the rest of the world, a little like Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, except with the dark street viewed from inside the lighted diner instead of the other way ’round.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, of course, shares the credit for creating this image (along with whoever was responsible for the rain effects).  John Gromada’s sound design, principally the jukebox music to which Willie practices his ballroom dancing, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes add to the complete authenticity of the little tea room’s increasingly fraught atmosphere.

Show-Score tallied 23 notices (as of 20 November) for the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of Master Harold and reported that 100% were positive.  The average score was 86; the survey’s highest rating was 95 (there were 2, the websites The Clyde Fitch Report and Front Row Center; there was also nine 90’s); Show-Score’s lowest rating was a single 70 (WNBC-TV), with two 75’s.  (My round-up will cover 14 notices.) 

Declaring the revival of Master Harold at Signature a “sterling new production,” the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood affirmed that “this quiet drama remains a powerful indictment of the apartheid system and the terrible human cost of the racism it codified and legalized.”  The play, one of Fugard’s “most celebrated and popular,” is “directed with care by” the author and “remains a powerful indictment of the apartheid system and the terrible human cost of the racism it codified and legalized.”  Matt Windman of am New York described Master Harold as “no doubt the finest play written by” Fugard and pronounced the Signature revival “excellent.”  “Intimate and tightly constructed, sharply political and emotionally bruising, autobiographical yet universal, despairing but with a glimmer of hope,” Windman characterized the play, and like several other reviewers found relevance in our current politics: “Following an election season where personal frustrations inspired disturbing manifestations of racial and ethnic prejudice, the play is quite pertinent today.  But even if that were not the case, it would still pack a strong punch simply because it is a masterful and accessible piece of writing.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” on Master Harold was: “Beautiful and upsetting Fugard revival,” which she described full of “youthful power.”  With “a magnificent cast,” the play unfolds through “leisurely storytelling, deceptively complex humanity and grounded simplicity.”

The “Goings On About Town” column of the New Yorker called Master Harold “a classic slow burn” in which the “atmosphere remains so light and casual for so long that considerable tension accrues around the question of how the interaction will inevitably explode.”  The New Yorker reviewer added, “It is depressing to recognize, in this moment of emboldened white nationalism, that the play is not as much a museum piece from the other side of the world as we might have fooled ourselves into believing it was exactly eight years ago.”  Jesse Green, while calling the Signature revival “powerful,” observed in New York magazine that the play “may seem like small potatoes compared with the repression, poverty, and denial of liberty that the apartheid system enforced on millions.”  He continued that one problem with the play is “that its first two-thirds are taken up with the slow, careful setting of what seems to be a purely domestic trap.”  Fugard “springs the trap” in the last third of the play when Hally gets the news of his father’s return and “what has sometimes seemed a bit desultory and kitchen-sinkish, with a lacy overlay of pretty imagery involving kites and quicksteps, becomes gripping and then devastating.”  But Green complained that the author’s work contains “a stolid resistance to theatricality in favor of moral seriousness” and that sometimes “you might wish for more imaginative direction.”  Nonetheless, concluded the man from New York, Master Harold’s “representation of a world in a tearoom is at least as astonishing an achievement as the inscribing of a bible on the head of a pin.  And more piercing, probably.”  (Like some others, Green appended a remark reminding us of Master Harold’s contemporary relevance, lamenting that “South Africa in 1950 . . . was not the only place or time on Earth when black lives didn’t seem to matter.”)

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck reported in his “Bottom Line”: “This superbly staged and acted revival reveals that the apartheid-set drama has lost none of its power.”  Calling Master Harold Fugard’s “masterwork,” Scheck affirmed that it “may take place in South Africa during the early years of apartheid, but its depiction of the ways in which people are capable of hurting even those they love transcends the political landscape of bigotry and oppression that inspired it.”  A “deeply moving and powerful . . . play,” reported the HR reviewer, Master Harold “is now receiving an emotionally pitch-perfect revival.”  He noted, “Very little of dramatic importance occurs during much of the play's running time,” requiring “patience during its lengthy, meandering build-up, before reaching its emotionally devastating conclusion.”  Scheck concluded that “it's worth the time,” however, and seeing it under Fugard’s direction “represents a privilege not to be missed.”  David Cote of Time Out New York made a rather unusual comparison to demonstrate his assessment of the play:

Athol Fugard’s 1982 apartheid drama is a little like Mass for lazy Catholics:  Technically speaking, you only have to show up for Eucharist (the blessing of bread and wine) to stay saved.  In “Master Harold” . . . and the boys, that means perking up when teen Afrikaner Harold . . . turns on his friends (and de facto employees) Sam . . . and Willie . . ., lashing out at them with privileged contempt.  

The rest of the play, asserted the man from TONY, “is exposition, backstory and windup” despite “[r]ichly detailed acting and Fugard’s solid direction” which “make the journey . . . fairly engaging.”   

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart reported that Fugard’s revival of Master Harold “pulls out all the technical stops . . . while employing some top-notch actors to perform his drama of soft bigotry and the lost promise of change.”  He labeled the production “a beautifully rendered yet somewhat sleepy revival . . . which feels unfortunately diminished amid its own grandiosity.”  The author’s “steady direction” brings the play to an “emotional climax at a slow boil . .  but the necessarily nuanced performances occasionally drown in the cavernous Diamond Theater.”  The TM review-writer concluded, “Still, those looking for a traditional and well-acted production of Fugard’s masterpiece won’t be disappointed.”  Ann Firestone Ungar of New York Theatre Guide pronounced the Signature revival of Master Harold “a mighty play given a mighty production.”  The playwright “has directed with perfect attention to detail” so that the “attention to realism . . . is gripping because of its truth.”  The NYTG reviewer recommended “without reservation” the “moving work of art,” which she dubbed “flawless.” 

“Master Harold” . . . and the boys “pulses with a terrible beauty,” declared Deirdre Donovan on CurtainUp.  Directing “impeccably,” Fugard lets “the Beckett-like simplicity of his play be its strong suit.”  The CU reviewer explained, “She trusts to its spare language, vividly-limned characters, and the tableaus of the racial hate.”  (Though Donovan had high praise for all three actors, she, too, had some problems with the South African dialects.)  Broadway World’s Michael Dale labeled the Signature revival of Fugard’s play “excellent” and reported, “There is little action in the play, but a lot of thought.”  Dale asserted, “In a sense, ‘MASTER HAROLD’ . . . AND THE BOYS becomes a sad twist on the typical coming-of-age story.” 

Matthew Murray warned on Talkin’ Broadway, “You might experience a bit of an initial shock at how shocking the Signature Theatre revival of ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the boys . . . is not.”  He explained:

After all, Athol Fugard’s play is known for eliciting gasps, recoils, and even jumps when it hits its climax.  And though this production, which the playwright has directed, is good at generating horrified silences gaping enough to swallow Manhattan whole, those more stunned and stunning reactions are not to be found. 

Murray contended, though, that “even if it’s lost some of its ability to surprise” due to changes in the world since its début, Fugard’s play “has not lost any of its power.”  Of his themes, Murray asserted, “Fugard attacks the topic so thoroughly and so bracingly that it remains astonishing that he does so with such sensitivity and beauty.“  On Theater Pizzazz, Martha Wade Steketee affirmed that Master Harold “feels devastatingly current and resonant in today’s America” even as Fugard “directs and conducts the breathtaking hairpin turns in the dialogue rhythms that lull us into revelations of internalized socialized roles, routines, and expectations in apartheid South Africa.”

Robert Kahn of WNBC-TV, the NBC network outlet in New York City, called Master Harold “still-resonant” and reported that Fugard directed “an elegant revival” at Signature.  With praise for the cast, especially Brown and Ngaujah, Kahn had some reservations about Robbins’s portrayal: “Hally is never very likable, coming off as a young Napoleon from the start. Because his Hally is such a brat, the play is denied a larger sense of any escalating ferocity within the boy.”  In sum, however, the WNBC reviewer said, “Fugard’s drama is slow to unreel, but builds to a confrontation audiences will find absorbing.”

[Athol Fugard’s Legacy production of “Master Harold” . . . and the boys at the Signature Theatre Company was one of the last decisions made by STC’s founding artistic director, James Houghton, who stepped down in June and died in August.  He had offered Fugard a “New York theatre home” at Signature where many of the South African’s plays have been presented over the seasons.  The dramatist confessed that “it is incredibly sad for me that Jim will not be in the audience in person to see [Master Harold] come alive on his stage.”  In the program for Master Harold, Fugard wrote:

When Jim Houghton approached me a year ago about including “Master Harold” . . . and the boys in the last season that he would program as Founding Artistic Diector of Signature Theatre, I immediately knew I wanted to do it.  Not only because I wanted to make his every wish come true, insofar as it was in my power, but also because it was yet another instance of Jim’s uncanny  ability to match the needs of his theatre with the needs of his playwrights.  I could not think of a better way to celebrate 50-odd years of playwriting.  Jim, this one’s for you.]

16 November 2016

'The Front Page'


What could possibly live up to the descriptors “one of the lustiest productions of the Broadway market” and “one of the most madcap farces of the period”?  That was John Gassner (1903-1967), drama critic, theater historian, and professor of criticism and dramaturgy.  How about “an evening with loud, rapid, coarse and unfailing entertainment” and “a steaming broth of excitement and comedy”?  That was Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984), venerable theater reviewer for the New York Times and the dean of the New York theater press corps.  They were both effusing over the original production of what Peter Marks of the Washington Post just called “the best play about newspapering ever written”: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 perennial audience-pleaser, The Front Page—or, as Ben Brantley characterized it in his New York Times review, “just about everybody’s favorite play about journalism.”

I’d never actually seen The Front Page on stage until this month—though, of course, I’ve seen all of the films based on it many times.  So when I saw the announcement that a new revival of the classic comedy was going to play Broadway once again (the last time was 1986 when it received two Tony nominations), I gladly signed up.  The list of cast members clinched the deal for me.  Diana, my regular theater companion, and I got mezzanine seats for the evening performance Friday, 4 November, at the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street, where the revival began previews on 20 September and opened on 20 October.  The limited-run production will close on 29 January 2017.

The Front Page has been presented in rep companies all around the country as well as in colleges and community theaters and it’s been presented four times on the Great White Way.  The début was on 14 August 1928 at the Times Square Theatre where it ran for 276 performances under the direction of playwright George S. Kaufman.  The show was produced by the great Jed Harris with Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns and Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson; featured were Frances Fuller as Peggy Grant, Hildy’s fiancée, and Dorothy Stickney as Molly Malone, the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold.  (It wasn’t a cliché yet.)  Revivals came in 1946, directed by playwright MacArthur with Arnold Moss as Burns and Lew Parker as Hildy; 1969, directed by Harold J. Kennedy (who also played Bensinger of the Tribune) with Robert Ryan as Burns and Bert Convy as Hildy and featuring Helen Hayes—Mrs. Charles MacArthur—as Mrs. Grant, Hildy’s prospective mother-in-law; and 1986, directed by Jerry Zaks and starring John Lithgow as Burns and Richard Thomas as Hildy. 

The film adaptations of Front Page began with the 1931 straight adaptation helmed by Lewis Milestone with Adolphe Menjou as Burns and Pat O'Brien as Hildy.  In 1940, Columbia Pictures and filmmaker Howard Hawks (with Hecht’s complicity) made Hildy a female reporter played, by Rosalind Russell, working for shifty editor Burns, played by Cary Grant, turning the knock-about farce into a successful and popular romantic comedy.  In 1974; Universal Pictures and director Billy Wilder returned to the original gender line-up, but in color this time, and cast Walter Matthau as Burns and Jack Lemmon as Hildy, a paring that became irresistible after the success of the 1968 movie version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.  (In addition to The Front Page, Matthau and Lemmon acted together in six film comedies plus JFK and The Grass Harp.) 

There were also three television versions of Front Page, one in 1945 on WNBT (now WNBC) in New York City, directed by Ed Sobol with Matt Crowley as Burns and Vinton Hayworth as Hildy; given the date of this production, I’m guessing it was a live broadcast of the play from which a kinescope was made.  In 1970, the Hughes TV Network (that would be Howard Hughes), a short-lived network, aired a TV movie  directed by Alan Handley with Robert Ryan as Burns and George Grizzard as Hildy.  There was also an early television series that ran on CBS from 1949 to 1950; the series was directed by Franklin Heller with  John Daly as Burns and Mark Roberts as Hildy. 

New York City-born Ben Hecht (1894-1964) began reporting for the Chicago Daily News (represented in Front Page by Schwartz) in 1912 and then wrote for the Daily Journal (Murphy); in 1923, he started his own paper, the Chicago Literary Times.  He soon started writing short plays and even contributed a piece to the art-loving Washington Square Players (see “The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake” on ROT, 21 and 24 June 2012), The Hero of Santa Maria (1917).  In 1922 he had a full-length play, The Egotist, on stage in New York.  Hecht also collaborated with another former newspaperman, Gene Fowler (1890-1960), on The Great Magoo (1932).  Hecht was also a short-story writer and novelist who wrote, among other prose works, Erik Dorn (1921), A Jew in Love (1930), and A Guide to the Bedevilled (1944).  He also wrote a serious drama, To Quito and Back (1937), and was a prolific and well-regarded Hollywood screenwriter, perhaps best known for the motion pictures Twentieth Century (1934), The Scoundrel (1935; Academy Award for screenwriting, shared with MacArthur), Wuthering Heights (1939; Academy Award nomination for writing, with MacArthur), Gunga Din (1939), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946).  Hecht’s autobiography, A Child of the Century, was published in 1954.

Charles MacArthur (1895-1956), born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, was the nephew of playwright Edward Sheldon (1886-1946), the son of a stern evangelical clergyman, and the brother of John D. MacArthur (1897-1978), benefactor of the MacArthur Fellowships (the “genius grants”).  He’d been a student at a theological seminary for two years before leaving home to join William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire to write for the Chicago Tribune (Bensinger) and the Herald-Examiner (Hildy).  Taking to journalism with exceptional verve, he became a successful feature writer, and he resumed his newspaper career after returning from service in the World War I.  His début in the theater was a collaboration with Edward Sheldon on Lulu Belle (1926).  Next he collaborated with Sidney Howard (1891-1939) on Salvation (1928).  MacArthur, who in 1928 married “the first lady of the American stage,” Helen Hayes (1900-1993), was also the adoptive father of actor James MacArthur (1937-2010), “Danno” on the original version of the TV series Hawaii Five-O (1968-80).  Like his frequent collaborator, MacArthur was also a screenwriter, penning scripts for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Rasputin and the Empress (1932; Academy Award nomination for writing), and (with Hecht) Wuthering Heights.  MacArthur assumed the editorship of the combined Theatre Arts and Stage magazines in 1948 and was inducted posthumously into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1983.

The Hecht-MacArthur collaboration continued with Twentieth Century (1933)—which became the John Barrymore movie and a Broadway musical, On the Twentieth Century—and the circus musical spectacular, Jumbo (1935).  These were followed by Ladies and Gentleman (1939), and Swan Song (1946).  The two ex-newspapermen collaborated on screenplays for some of Hollywood’s most popular films from 1933 until their deaths (and beyond, if you include later adaptations and derivations such as Switching Channels, a 1988 reimagining of The Front Page for TV news.)

The Front Page is a sort of exposé of the freewheeling world of popular journalism of the day, which, of course, Hecht and MacArthur not only knew well from the inside but had been past masters at practicing.  Here’s how the pair had Hildy Johnson describe the profession in the play:

Journalists!  Peeking through keyholes!  Running after fire engines! like a lot of coach dogs!  Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of Mussolini.  Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park.  A lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys!

The soon-to-be-former reporter characterizes newsmen as a “cross between a bootlegger and a whore,” and we eavesdrop as the members of the fourth estate would rather invent a news story than report one.  Audiences in 1928 would immediately have recognized the characters in the play—in fact, Chicagoans would have realized exactly at whom the authors were pointing their fingers as they were all but naming names.  Hecht and MacArthur “had axes to grind,” said director Jack O’Brien.  The director of the current revival continued that the former ink-stained wretches knew exactly whom their characters represented: “They are based on real characters from Chicago.”   According to Gassner, however, the play “was actually too carefree to provide any pertinent analysis or to make any show of indignation” regarding the journalistic practices then in common use. 

The play’s first act establishes the characters like the pilot of a sit-com.   (Of the journalists, only Walter Burns, the high-powered editor of the Herald-Examiner, isn’t seen until Act Two.   Most of the important characters are introduced in Act One—including, in this revival, the catalytic figure of Earl Williams, the escaped convict.)  Director O’Brien has rejiggered the script some (Jesse Green in New York magazine reported that the production script was “cobbled together from several versions”) so that, for one thing, the first act ends with the surprise appearance of escaped convict Williams, something that happens in the middle of Act Two in the published version.  (Some explosive language used plentifully in the 1928 text has also been excised.) 

All three acts of Front Page are set in the well-used Press Room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago, which looks down on the yard behind the Cook County Jail where a gallows is being tested for the early morning hanging of Earl Williams, convicted of shooting a black cop to death.  It’s late October 1928 and an election is looming for the Mayor of Chicago (Dann Florek) and the Sheriff of Cook County (John Goodman).  Reporters from most of the city’s dailies are killing time playing poker, cracking wise about the day’s events, and gossiping about the whereabouts and prospective marriage of their colleague Hildy Johnson (John Slattery).  Hildy, ace reporter for the Herald-Examiner and the gang’s undisputed star, is late and the scuttlebutt is that he’s quitting the news racket for marriage and a straight job. 

The reporters are waiting to witness the execution of Williams, a white man and supposed Communist revolutionary, and they’d just as soon Sheriff Hartman would move the time a few hours earlier so they can make the morning editions, but Hartman refuses to execute his prisoner before sunrise—lest no voters see him do his duty.  Hildy blows into the press room only to say good-bye, confirming the rumors of his marriage and departure.  (He’s going to New York to work in his fiancée’s uncle’s ad agency at the munificent salary of $150 a week, just over $2,000 today.  Reporters were paid half that.)  All of a sudden, the reporters hear a hubbub from the jail—Williams has escaped.  All the newsmen rush out for more information, but Hildy pauses to decide what to do, torn between his decision to leave this world for good and his instincts as a reporter.  As Hildy stands alone in the press room, Williams (John Magaro) crashes through the window.  He tells Hildy he’s not a Red—just an anarchist, and that he shot the policeman by accident.  The reporter realizes that Williams has been railroaded just to help the mayor and the sheriff win enough “colored” votes (Hecht and MacArthur used the ‘n’-word casually throughout the play, but O’Brien switched it out) to be re-elected.  With the hottest scoop of his life in his grasp—never mind his waiting fiancée and the New York Central to the Big Apple—Hildy hides Williams inside a roll-top desk that belongs to Bensinger (Jefferson Mays), the fussy reporter for the Tribune.  Now what Hildy has to do is get Williams out of the court building before rival papers or trigger-happy cops find him.  Out of options, Hildy calls Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), his editor at the Examiner, for help.

Burns, a devious and single-minded man who’ll do anything to prevent Hildy from leaving the paper, arrives on the scene and puts into action plans to get the whole desk out of the building.  Before he can accomplish that, however, everyone returns to the press room at once, putting the kibosh on Burns’s scheme and putting Williams, still hiding in the desk, in danger of being discovered.  Indeed, he is found out as guns are drawn and accusations echo through the room.  Just as Williams is about to be led off to face his execution, Irving Pincus (Robert Morse), a messenger from the governor, arrives from Springfield with a reprieve for the condemned man—which the mayor and the sheriff had earlier tried to suppress.  So Hildy smoothes over the ruffled feelings of his fiancée, Peggy Grant (Halley Feiffer), and her mother (Holland Taylor) and rushes to catch his train to New York.  As soon as the wedding party leaves, though, Burns is on the phone to his lackey at the Examiner ordering him to wire the police chief at the first stop eastward on the New York Central line to arrest Hildy—for the theft of the engraved watch Burns had just given the reporter as a going-away gift!

The Front Page is long—two hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions (and that’s with cuts in the text); the final curtain came down just before 11 p.m.  Brantley’s review was right on in one respect at least: the play doesn’t take off until Nathan Lane’s Walter Burns makes his entrance in Act Two.  In fact, the plot doesn’t even get started until the last moment of Act One when Earl Williams makes his entrance into the court house press room through the window.  The whole first act is set-up—not even exposition (though there is some of that), but really character establishment.  As I noted, The Front Page works like a sit-com, with stock characters with clear traits that don’t develop or change interacting with one another and the situation in ways dictated by the character traits.  The plot is driven by the central, unexpected situation surprise—in Front Page, it’s the escape of Williams and then to up the ante, his appearance in the press room when only Hildy is there.  The humor derives from the way the established characters respond to the situation.  So the whole first act sets up the personalities and their interrelationships, and then the situation gets knotty.  The resolution is essentially an honest-to-God deus ex machina introduced as a way to end the plot because the organic ending, namely the execution of Williams, wouldn’t be comic.

If it weren’t for the witty and literate writing of Hecht and MacArthur, and a dollop of authenticity because they were both actual Chi-town newspapermen, Front Page wouldn’t be worth reviving.  This production enhances that by casting all the main roles with stage stars (Lane, Morse, Mays, Goodman) or top-flight stage pros (Slattery, Taylor, Florek, David Pittu).  In a way, this is the stage equivalent of one of those old Hollywood flicks with a cast of collected stars and well-known personalities (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, for example, or What’s New Pussycat?).  When the mix works, it’s glorious; when it doesn’t, it’s chaos.  Front Page isn’t quite glorious, but it’s far from a mess—once the match is struck.  (Lane is inspired, however!  Everyone else steps up his or her game when he shows.)

The single set which confines the play is slightly tilted, as if designer Douglas W. Schmidt were hinting at Expressionism—suggesting that Chicago journalism is an off-kilter world.  The large center of the room, with the big table that serves as the desk for most of the press corps (except Bensinger, who has that roll-top), is quite straight—if shabby and grimy.  (Jennie, the requisite Irish charwoman played by Patricia Conolly, comes in daily to run a mop around the floor, but I got the distinct impression that the water in her bucket is none too clean to start with.)  Strewn with papers, pencils, notebooks, playing cards, poker chips, coffee cups, remains of carry-out meals—and the all-important seven 1920’s candlestick telephones, one for each paper—the table, a few chairs, and Bensinger’s prized desk—formerly the property of Mayor Fred A. Busse, 1886-1914, according to the script’s set description, whose 1907-11 administration was known for widespread corruption and the presence of organized crime in the city—are all that the room contains for amenities.  There’s a bathroom up left and across the stage right wall is a row of tall windows that look down onto the jail yard where Earl Williams’s gallows stands.  But above the back wall, beyond which is the building’s corridor and at the stage right end of which is the room’s entrance, the transom windows slope downward the the left, skewing the set’s perspective unnaturally.  The pictorial detail, however, is all early-20th-century Naturalism.  The room where the play’s ink-stained wretches live—they go home only rarely when there’s a story breaking—and work could serve as a metaphor for their profession: grubby and slightly bent. 

Brian MacDevitt’s lighting gives a semblance of film noir to the production, never getting much brighter than twilight (or, perhaps, dawn), and Ann Roth’s costumes capture the slovenly, down-at-heels garb of the newshounds, the dressier look of the pols, and the ’20s spiff of the upper-crust Grant ladies—often with a delightful little character fillip included (Mrs. Grant’s velvet admiral’s bicorne, for example).  (When Holland Taylor is carried out of the press room by two goons, stiff as a corpse, her patrician coif and traveling duds make an irresistible image of absurdity.)  Scott Lehrer’s soundscape provides the (constantly) ringing phones, police alarms, sirens, gunshots, along with snippets of period songs to set the atmosphere and milieu of the play.

Director Jack O’Brien (who also staged last year’s Broadway mounting of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play with Lane and another all-star cast) makes effective, naturalistic stage pictures with the large cast (26 members), but is less successful with the depiction of the individual characters, especially the scrum of reporters.  Camera flashes separate each act with freezes in a way that recalls TV’s NCIS, but still works nicely here.  (It’s also reminiscent of the current Internet craze, the Mannequin Challenge, that started in October.)  O’Brien, whose had lots of experience with large-cast shows and musicals (The Coast of Utopia, Henry IV – both Tony-winners), doesn’t manage so well, either, with developing the nuances in the key characters like Hildy and Peggy, who remain kind of bland and pale, and without this the play has a hole in the middle. 

Nonetheless, the director keeps the play moving at an increasing pace, like a New York Central locomotive accelerating on its way from the Windy City to Gotham.  That first act is slow-moving—some of the deletions, though for efficiency’s as well as political correctness’s sake, may have simultaneously diluted the levity—and seemed nearly interminable (though it was really only about 45 or 50 minutes.  (The lack of definition among the reporters doesn’t help this problem.)  But once the plot is ignited with the escape of Earl Williams, the proceedings start to pick up speed and energy, and O’Brien adds coal to the engine with each plot twist—Williams’s coming through the press room window, Walter Burns’s arrival on the scene, the discovery of Williams’s in the desk, Pincus’s showing up suddenly—until the moment of Hildy and the Grants’ happy departure is almost an explosion.  Then, in a brief post-climax that drops the energy down to almost calm, Burns makes that underhanded phone call.

The cast of The Front Page is odd in one significant sense: it’s an ensemble for the most part—yes, Burns is a star part and Hildy should be, too, but overall, this play works as a group effort—but O’Brien’s ensemble is made up of stars and near-stars.  Generally, it works fine, with a few exceptions (which don’t scuttle the whole effort, fortunately).  As I observed, the gang of scribblers needs to have been differentiated more—all those terrific character actors never really get a chance to shine as actors or as comments on the journalism profession the way I think Hecht and MacArthur wanted them to.  They’re just sort of general hubbub; Jennie, the cleaning lady, and Woodenshoes (Micah Stock), the amateur psychology-wonk German cop, make more of an impression than the reporters do, and they’re little more than window-dressing.  I put the onus for this on O’Brien, but the result is that what ought to have been a mosaic of different personalities all clamoring for focus never really gelled.—and all those performers who usually have no trouble standing out—Mays, Pittu (Schwartz of the Daily News), Lewis J. Stadlen (Endicott of the Post), Christopher McDonald (Murphy of the Journal), Joey Slotnick (Wilson of the American), Dylan Baker (McCue of the City News Bureau), and Clarke Thorell (Kruger of the Journal of Commerce)—all get lost.

Dann Florek as the corrupt Mayor; Sherie Rene Scott as Mollie Malloy, the hooker with a thing for Earl Williams; John Magaro’s Williams; Conolly’s Jennie; and Stock’s Woodenshoes Eichhorn all fare better, given a moment or two to strut (although Stock has the strangest German accent I ever heard—Kate Wilson was the dialect coach), and Mays’s fussbudget Bensinger manage to take the stage once or twice.  The featured cast does best of all, not surprisingly, by virtue of the script.  Goodman’s Sheriff Hartman, not just dishonest but incompetent (Williams escapes using a gun Hartman gave him voluntarily!), plays the role as a kind if Southern dimwit (yeah, I dunno, either), but he’s pretty low-energy (if you’ll pardon the Trumpism).  I understand the actor has lost considerable weight recently; maybe his girth is like Samson’s hair—it gives him his strength.  Robert Morse (whom I saw back in about 1961 as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the role that made him a star) is almost indemnified from being ill-used because of his positioning—he has two self-contained scenes where he gets to play the befuddled but incorruptible government functionary right at the center of the action—and he handles it with wit and style and conviction.  It’s a set piece and Morse, just as I’d have expected, knocks it out of the park. 

The women characters, though treated shabbily by Hecht and MacArthur—they present us with a washerwoman, a whore, a shrew, and a battleaxe, pretty much running the gamut of female stereotypes—get by as performances at the same level as the men.  Of the Grant women, Holland Taylor’s Mrs. Grant comes of best, though there’s a hitch in the character choice.  Taylor is among the strongest figures on the Front Page stage, with the most considered and complete character.  The actor pursues a strong action, unwaveringly and with conviction, even when it gets her into difficulties.  The problem is that instead of a ball-buster, which is closer to how she’s written, Taylor and O’Brien have turned Grant mère into a reasonable-but-confused matron.  The Front Page is a play of extremes, even stereotypical extremes, and two reasonable woman wheedling Hildy doesn’t make the mechanism go ‘round.  If Peggy’s an ingratiating inveigler, then the play gets more laughs if mama’s a bear.  It would also work better if Peggy is a sterner presence than Halley Feiffer is here.  What she’s doing is fine; but she needs to ratchet up the stakes: she’s after a man who’s addicted to newspapering—he mainlines printer’s ink.  It isn’t a vacation to Maui she’s taking Hildy away on, it’s a cold-turkey detox into a whole new life.  She’s got to fight, or Burns, the dope peddler, wins.

That brings me to John Slattery as the news junkie himself.  The Front Page is essentially a battle of wills between Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson.  Hildy wants to get out of the news racket, get married, and lead something of a normal life.  (Let’s not get into whether the really wants to or not.  Oh, and by the way: there’s a serendipitous jokelet at which some on the audience chuckled because Hildy’s going into advertising—and Slattery’s best known for starring in the AMC show Mad Men, a series about the ad biz.  Front Page costar Morse was also featured on that show.)  Burns doesn’t want to let his star reporter go and he’ll use any means to get what he wants.  Everyone else in the play is just an impediment to the two Examiner men’s goals, monkey wrenches for the works.  Hildy and Burns have to be equally matched, or the tug-o’-war doesn’t work right, and Slattery isn’t pulling his end of the rope hard enough.  Lane’s Walter Burns wipes up the floor with him.  It’s as if Slattery’s Hildy knows going in he doesn’t want to leave, so he just goes through the paces of pulling back against Burns.  It’s a half-hearted attempt, making this Front Page a one-sided fight.

If it weren’t for Nathan Lane, there’d be no contest at all.  Dramatically (and comedically) speaking, Lane is pulling his weight and Slattery’s.  So the play doesn’t get started until the plot gets underway with Williams’s escape, but the production doesn’t take off until Walter Burns gets on stage.  Lane doesn’t just light a spark, he ignites a firestorm.  He bounces around the set, he shouts, he cracks wise, he bullies, he barks orders, he bribes, he wheedles, he dissembles.  Theatrically, he’s a one-man band crossed with the Energizer bunny.  As far as I’m concerned, his performance is worth the price of admission all by itself.

The press coverage of The Front Page was extensive.  Show-Score surveyed 47 reviews (as of 15 November) for an average rating of 70.  55% of the reviews were positive, 17% were negative, and 28% were mixed.  The highest score in the sampling was a single 100 (Time Out New York) and there were two 95’s (Variety, Huffington Post); the lowest score was a 25 (BroadwaySelect), the lowest I’ve ever seen on the site, and there was also one 30 (WNYC).  (“First-nighters” were required to see the show on opening night in an apparent homage to traditional old-time theater journalism; reviewers from weeklies and others with later deadlines came to subsequent performances.  Some review-writers suspected director O’Brien and lead producer Scott Rudin might have had an ulterior motive for the move.)

In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout described The Front Page as “a comic masterpiece in its own unromantic, hard-charging right,” having compared it in passing with His Girl Friday, but reported that “it’s a grievous disappointment to report that this much-anticipated revival is slack and lackluster, a case study in how to get a good play wrong.”  Despite “high quality” actors, this Front Page is “ineffective,” and Teachout blames director O’Brien.  “The pacing is on the slow side and some of the performances are surfacey and under-vitalized,” he wrote, and though certain actors—the Journal reviewer named Mays, Morse, and Stadlen—“blast the bull’s-eye right out of the target, the cast as a whole feels like a random collection of talented performers, not a true ensemble,” he criticized Goodman, “who . . . barely comes across at all,” and Slattery, whose “Hildy is a disaster, blandly likable but devoid of charisma.”  Slattery’s failure “to make much of an impression . . . necessarily puts a gaping hole in the center of the show.”  Teachout declared, “The biggest problem of all is that Mr. O’Brien has softened the tungsten-hard tone of” the play, which “is played for laughs, not truth, and that’s why it falls so flat.”  The Journalist complained of O’Brien’s sanitizing of the script, “regrettably exemplary of his toothless approach” and “an all-too-clear indication of his squirming discomfort with the thousand-proof ferocity of Hecht and MacArthur.”  Teachout ended by stating that Lane’s performance is “great.”  “Too great, really: No sooner does he make his first entrance midway through the second act than the energy level of the production skyrockets.  Suddenly you see what was missing up to that point, and realize why you’d come close to nodding off mere minutes before.” 

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz opened with: “Stop the presses: Nathan Lane saves the day—and the play—again.”  (There were a few invocations of the world of journalism in the reviews—but then, reviewers are also journalists.)  “Broadway’s famous comic ace is in his glory in ‘The Front Page,’” wrote the News reviewer.  “Like a shot of adrenaline laced with laughing gas, Lane jolts the lopsided and longwinded 1928 chestnut wide awake.”  Dziemianowicz continued, “The only thing wrong . . . is that he doesn’t arrive earlier,” because for the first two-thirds of the production, the actors “are mired in mostly expositional banter that goes in circles and stalls.”  Dziemianowicz concluded, “Director Jack O’Brien’s production is handsomely gritty and well-dressed, but only really catches fire in the third act.”  Matt Windman of am New York reported that the production “more often than not falls flat in spite of a boisterous atmosphere and heightened comedic tone.”  He dubbed Slattery “an ideal Hildy, with a cool and unfazed aura” and declared, “Lane steals the final third of the show with an over-the-top performance”; but he felt, “Goodman is loud, but strangely ineffective.”  O’Brien’s “lively and lavish production holds nothing back in terms of busy movement and broad comedy, but the three-act play does not hold up so well by today’s standards,” summed up Windman, who “often found myself admiring the production but unable to enjoy it.” 

Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” in Long Island’s Newsday was “Respectfully nostalgic, talent-stuffed revival only sparks with Nathan Lane.”  Winer reported that “the much-anticipated, talent-stuffed revival of ‘The Front Page’ has its amusing moments” until Lane shows up about two hours into the production, but quipped that the play nevertheless “could have been subtitled ‘Waiting for Nathan.’”  But when Lane’s Walter Burns “finally comes onstage—menacing little mustache and flipper eyebrows ablaze—the writing actually seems funnier and the style feels fresher, less creaky.”  Director O’Brien “devises particular quirks for almost every character to stand out momentarily from the group”; however, “Lane’s electrification of the last third cannot help make the rest feel like vamping.”  The New York Post’s Johnny Oleksinski asserted, “Broadway’s terrific ‘The Front Page’ . . . perfectly captures the tabloid newspapers I know: scrappy, hilarious roller-coasters of emotion.” Oleksinski called The Front Page “swift-moving” and noted that the cast of “big-name actors” all displayed “brassy, spit-on-the-floor ’tude.”  The Post reviewer joked, “Watching this top-tier talent having a ball ribbing each other, cursing with abandon and competing to be the loudest in the room reminds me of The Post, where, as I write this, two of my colleagues are about to come to blows over where to buy the best bread,” adding that “you don’t have to work here or at the Chicago Tribune to get a kick out of ‘The Front Page’—not with Lane storming around the stage, screaming at anyone and anything he encounters.”  Oleksinski closes with the remark, “You may hate the media, but you gotta admit—we can be pretty entertaining.”

Calling The Front Page “talky, gleefully squawky,” Alexis Soloski of the U.S. edition of The Guardian declared, “If ever an actor was the theatrical equivalent of a banner headline, that actor is Nathan Lane.”  Lane’s arrival is “splashed across the stage like a 72-point font,” and “[h]is jubilant, giant performance injects a cantankerous vitality into Jack O’Brien’s otherwise pleasant and respectful revival.”  Of the “comedy as black as shoe polish,” Soloski complimented the set as “handsome,” the dialogue as “sharp-witted,” and the cast as “an assemblage of some of New York’s finest character actors . . .and big names.”  Of the staging, she wrote, “The style is vivid and almost expressionist in the way that conversations are layered over around each other.”  “Yet,” Soloski demurred, “the revival’s energy is something less than crackling and the enterprise might have seemed merely respectable were it not for the joyously disreputable Lane,” who “gives a performance that is both outsized and just the right size.”  Of both the play and the production, Max McGuinness observed in the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, “Things start slowly as the hacks and various hangers-on struggle to invest much life into their dated wisecracks.”  The review-writer advised O’Brien to “have shaved 10 or 15 minutes off the first act.”  McGuinness reported, “The pace quickens with the introduction of star reporter Hildy Johnson” and that Lane’s “arrival transforms what had been a humdrum affair into a farcical tour de force.”  The FT reviewer described Lane as “a theatrical centaur, [who] charges about with brawny comic energy, hauling the rest of the cast up to a higher plane of funniness.”

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley lamented that “though ‘The Front Page’ is all about the adrenaline rush that turns journalists into deadline junkies, it’s hard to work up the proper urgency about Jack O’Brien’s production.”  Still, said the Timesman, it’s “diverting.  Pretty darn good.  At moments, very funny indeed.”  The production, “filled to the gills with tabloid-worthy faces, . . . looks photo-op fabulous.”  Nonetheless, warned Brantley, “aside from those moments when Mr. Lane is all but setting fire to the stage . . ., it is not the stuff of banner headlines.”  He explained, “The show is pointedly and self-consciously funny, savoring its own raucous wit, which paradoxically means that it just isn’t as funny as it should be.”  Brantley surmised that this might be due to the “relentlessly socko cast” and their “grandstanding panache to solicit not only entrance but also regular exit applause.”  The Times reviewer’s main complaint was: “What they only seldom achieve, though, is the sense of a professional tribe collectively hypnotized by their own high-octane mythology—moving, talking, clashing in a frenzied competitive march that holds them prisoners of its rat-a-tat rhythms. . . . . By the end of a perfect production, you should feel you’ve been mainlining black coffee for two-and-a-half hours.”  Each of the characters has his or her moment in O’Brien’s production, though “these moments rarely connect into a breathless chain of events,” reported Brantley, until Lane’s Burns show up.  “The bad news (for this production) is that [Burns] doesn’t make his entrance until the end of the second of the play’s three acts.”  The Timesman described Burns: “He’s a horrible man.  He also burns with a monomaniacal energy, channeled through Mr. Lane’s well-honed comic finesse, that absorbs your utter interest and makes him as ridiculously seductive as Greta Garbo.”  In the end, Brantley tellingly commented, “The combination of Mr. Lane’s all-consuming passion for the theater and Walter’s for getting the story makes the endangered profession of print journalism feel, for a flickering moment, like the most vital job on the planet”

In the New Jersey suburbs, Robert Feldberg of the Bergen County Record reported on NorthJersey.com that The Front Page “jog-trots along through its first act and most of the second, a fitfully amusing comedy” in which “the actors have only mixed results in finding the comic potential.“  The first act is “slow-developing,” the gang of reporters is “mostly indistinguishable,” and Slattery “is perfectly decent, but unexceptional.”  The reviewer continued, “And then Nathan Lane, portraying the crass, scheming, heartless newspaper editor Walter Burns, makes his initial appearance toward the end of the second act and everything changes in a flash,” explaining, “He provides a shot of theatrical adrenaline that propels the play through the third act.”  From the Newark Star-Ledger, Christopher Kelly reported on NJ.com that The Front Page “is definitely showing wear-and-tear.”  He observed that O’Brien “never does quite address the core issue of why bother to revive such an anachronism at all.  Still, you could do a lot worse than this epic cast,” continued Kelly.  “And when Lane finally enters the proceedings (albeit nearly two hours into the evening), he quickly reminds us why he is the foremost comic stage actor of his generation.”  The Star-Ledger reviewer found, though, that “O’Brien’s staging of the overlong first act [is] frustrating.  Clearly daunted by having to introduce and keep straight so many characters, this ‘Front Page’ proves way too slack.  Things improve considerably in the second act.”  Ultimately, “we’re left wondering why so much talent is given so little to do,” concluded Kelly, whose final assessment was that “whether you go for this ‘Front Page’ probably has much to do with your tolerance for the blockbuster approach to Broadway—whether you value flashy individual moments and big stars, or whether you prefer a more coherent and transporting experience.  Coherent this production is not, but that hasn’t yet (and probably won’t) stop it from being the most buzzed-about show of the fall.”

Michael Feingold labeled the world of The Front Page “comically warped and wincingly accurate” in the Village Voice; the “writing is constantly funny,” but the “gritty, fact-facing realism gives the humor a consistently bitter aftertaste, which the more extreme moments can turn to queasiness.”  The Broadway revival, said Feingold, “navigates somewhat nervously between the two elements.”  The actors seem “to have been directed to aim for the real,” reported the Voice reviewer, “conveying the sense that its comic zest has been dampened a little.”  Feingold lamented that “several performers cast in key roles who aren’t innately comedians . . . [fall] slightly short,” naming especially Slattery, then asserted, “And then there’s Lane,” for whom the director “apparently either shaped the scenes painstakingly with him or set him happily free to do as he likes.  All of which would count for little if Lane didn’t also have the authority, the charisma, and the comic skill to ping home every sly word and make every gag hit dead center, like a champion dart player.”  The Voice review-writer summed up, “That he makes it all look so easy is an extra scoop of ice cream on this exceptionally bittersweet confection.” 

In New York magazine, Jesse Green labeled the latest revival of The Front Page “a top-notch production” that “gets to a man’s heart through his ears.”  Likening the first act to “an orchestral tone poem,” Green asserted, “The slow build, like the play overall, is a masterpiece of construction, the kind that for a hundred reasons (including the cost of a 25-person cast) shouldn’t work today, but that under Jack O’Brien’s nervy direction undeniably does.”  The man from New York declared that “one of the very deep pleasures” of this Front Page is “to watch a large ensemble of character actors do what they’re so good at,” with a few unnamed exceptions, naming the members of the featured cast.  Saving lavish praise for Lane, Green observed, “So definitive and dominating is he that it’s tempting to leave the rest of the cast in his shadow.”  The reviewer continued, “Often thought of as a wit or a clown, Lane is really a time bomb onstage, with no fuse and an infinite payload.”  In the end, Green declared that “The Front Page is a classic not only for its playability but also for its timelessness.”  In the New Yorker, Hilton Als called the production an “outstanding revival” with “a surfeit of fantastic actors, who give the production everything they’ve got.”  Director O’Brien, who “utilizes the best of what Broadway has to offer—a big stage, a solid budget, slick production values—has not only created a milieu in which the performers can shine; he allows them the space to establish their characterizations” and the designers have “created a hyperstylized and yet still believable world.” 

David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” for his Hollywood Reporter review was “The headline is a long time coming but worth the wait” and he went on to call this Front Page Broadway production a “sturdy chestnut,” a “lavishly cast . . ., deluxe Broadway revival,” and “crackling entertainment.”  He warned about the “unhurried three-act construction and long wait for the main sparring partners to share scenes,” but affirmed that “it’s a marvel of theatrical craftsmanship.”  Still the HR reviewer (who, according to a note published with the review, “was prevented from attending a preview performance with a purchased ticket, and disinvited to opening night” because of an unspecified dispute with lead producer Rudin) found that “O’Brien sets up and lands punch lines with machine-tooled precision rather than coaxing the humor organically from the situations.  That also has the effect of softening the play’s delicious cynicism and undercutting its melodrama.”  Rooney also felt that Slattery is “miscast,” eschewing “the raw hunger of a competitive man addicted to the thrill of the scoop and the adrenaline rush of the deadline” for “Hildy’s Brylcreem-slick suavity.”  Even though some of the other “impressive” cast are “under-employed,” however, “the production delivers big time.”  Like most of his colleagues, the HR writer reported that “the play only really starts firing on all cylinders once Lane enters,” for “the galvanizing force of Lane’s performance erases any concerns about the production’s unevenness.”

In Entertainment Weekly, Chris Nashawaty quipped that the revival of The Front Page “makes the cardinal sin of burying the lead”: “the first act is both over-long and too broad.  It’s flat where it should be fizzy.”  Further, “Slattery feels a little too lightweight in the part.  He doesn’t convincingly give off the calculating smarts and socko charisma the character should.”  Nashawaty also laments that “it isn’t until halfway through the nearly three-hour running time when Nathan Lane . . . finally makes his entrance that the show catches fire.”  He praised the actor as “like a human defibrillator whose presence single-handedly puts the production back on course.”  The EW reviewer concluded that The Front Page is “smart, subversive, and seemingly timeless.  Too bad that this time around it’s also an ensemble comedy that feels like a one-man show.” 

David Cote of Time Out New York dubbed the production a “5,000-volt revival . . . whipped into a hellacious comic frenzy by one of the best acting ensembles you and I may ever see.”  Cote added that O’Brien’s “pedal-to-the-metal production is astonishingly true to the spirit and letter of the script,”  despite the director’s sanitization, and his “pacing is masterful.”  The acting “seals the deal,” affirmed the man from TONY, and “Lane and Slattery’s mutually abusive, rat-a-tat rapport is a thing of beauty.”  At bottom, Cote recommended that theatergoers “see this brutally brilliant masterpiece, and you’ll be inoculated against the viciousness of the world.”  With “a starry cast,”  director O’Brien presents “an impeccable revival” of The Front Page, affirmed Marilyn Stasio in Variety.  If the director missed any of the “variety of opportunities for farcical comedy,” Stasio “failed to catch it.”  The Variety reviewer found, “The production is as close to perfection as it comes, peaking in sheer hilarity when [Lane] roars onstage.”  Declaring that “they don’t write ensemble plays like this anymore,” Stasio ended by asserting, “Count yourself lucky if you scored a seat.  You won’t forget it.”

In the cyber press, New York Theatre Guide’s Kathleen Campion reported that “The Front Page has a good deal of energy—the huge cast rockets around the one room set” and that “one-to-one exchanges between and among the three principals . . . are rich and pithy and often funny.”  She also complained, “They are also often so broad and predictable as to be eye-rolling.  I’m not sure they are enough to keep you riveted for three acts, especially because you have to wait till act two to lay eyes on Nathan Lane.”  Slattery and Nathan’s moments “are small diamonds in a rhinestone wash of a show . . . but somehow you just don’t buy him as the gritty, tough guy.”  Campion concluded, “The production feels long”; it has “many good moments, but you do have to pay the piper with your patience.”  On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell reported that The Front Page, with “superb direction” by O’Brien, “has it all when it comes to political hacks and sleazy journalists . . . but misses greatly waiting till more than half the show is over before releasing the likes of Nathan Lane and his inimitable shtick.“  As Durell noted, Lane’s “performance is merciless and non-stop and every reason to see this farce.” 

On TheaterScene, Eugene Paul labeled the Broadway mounting of The Front Page a “lovingly painstaking revival,  crammed to the gills with famous star names doing star turns,  smashingly designed . . ., [and] dressed to achingly nostalgic perfection.”  Paul asserted, “In spite of what appears to be brash, slap dash writing tumbling out a cast of stock characters, there is a solid, well worked out frame to the play which drives story, the heart of a show, like a locomotive, and director O’Brien takes advantage of every bit.”  Elyse Sommer warned on CurtainUp that “the enjoyable presentation and excellent performances notwithstanding, once you get over admiring the set and the costumes and listen to some of the insults and phone calls flying around the room, the rest of the first act and part of the second are a too dragged out setup.”  The CU reviewer affirmed that “it’s not until Nathan Lane’s Editor Burns, smelling an unmissable scoop, finally plants himself center stage that this production bursts into full-blown laugh-aloud mode.” 

Marc Miller of NY Theatre Guide characterized this Front Page, a “rude, rough-and-tumble look at Chicago Jazz Age,” as a “starry, wall-shaking revival.”  Sensing “a certain audience restlessness during the first act,” Miller “was having a wonderful time” anticipating who would come through the press room door next.  “When Walter does finally show up,” reported the cyber reviewer, “. . . the energy, which was plenty vigorous to begin with, ramps up tenfold.”  Hecht and MacArthur, whom Miller proclaimed the “real heroes of the evening,” devised “a full plate, and this ‘Front Page’ serves it up piping hot.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale labeled the production a “raucously good revival” in which “a terrific cast bangs out the gritty, wise-cracking dialogue . . . with the precision of freshly greased keys striking at the platen of a Royal typewriter.”  The BWW reviewer added, “Nathan Lane and John Slattery lead the way, but the twenty-five member ensemble . . . contribute solidly to a rousing production.”  Lane’s “flourishing comedic energy commands every moment for the rest of the evening.”  Dale summed up with: “O’Brien’s staging races to a frantic conclusion and one of the American theatre’s most glorious curtain lines.  This is satisfying old-school, muscular comedy done right.”

“The Internet may be adept at killing newspapers (or at least putting them on life support),” quipped Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway,but there’s no way it can ever kill The Front Page.”  In his opinion, “It hardly matters that” the play “no longer has much relevance as either a social or a journalistic document; in its towering political shenanigans and its nonstop Gatling Gun dialogue . . ., it’s about as timeless and indestructible on the page as any play of the last 100 years can be.”  Nonetheless, Murray felt that of the large cast, “there is only one who scores an unconditional success, and a second who comes within spitting distance of it.”  The TB reviewer explained, “Everyone else works hard—frequently too hard.”  Murray is the odd man out among his critical colleagues in that the two praiseworthy performances he noted come from Slattery and Taylor, while he had strongly unfavorable things to say about all the other actors, including Lane, who’s “all wrong, lacking the naked drive and violent, skyrocketing ambition” of Murray’s ideal Burns.  Slattery, on the other hand, “is, above all else, resolutely real.”  The director “should have done more to elicit the life-threatening urgency” from the performances.  For a play like The Front Page to work, “you have to buy into what’s happening completely . . ., and only Slattery [is] immersed in this world.”  The TB writer lamented, “Wonderful as he is, though, Slattery alone is not enough to make this version of The Front Page banner headline news.” 

“That’s not the sound of a fleet of flivvers backfiring that you hear at the Broadhurst on West 44th Street these nights,” reported Steven Suskin in the Huffington Post.  “It’s laughter, cascading and echoing like bullets from tommy guns of the St. Valentine’s Day variety, circa 1928 Chicago.”  The Front Page is “as riproaring as ever,” wrote the HP reviewer, as the revival, “happily, fires on all cylinders.”  With lavish praise for the whole cast, Suskin added that O’Brien “does an impeccable job here” and that there’s “also a top-of-the-line physical production.”  The whole company does well “bringing today’s audiences a flavorfully-blustery, quaintly blasphemous comic feast,” concluded the HP writer.  TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart dubbed the revival of The Front Page, a “lumbering and overloaded” play, a “hit-or-miss production” that “is at its funniest when that resonance shines through.”  But Stewart found that “the tone of the play is not always consistent.”  Though the cast is “[i]ndividually, . . . very funny . . . [i]t begins to feel like the night of a thousand shticks.”  O’Brien “fails to bring harmony to the proceedings” until “Lane enters with a show-stealing performance.”  TM’s review-writer predicted that “some viewers will be tempted to flee at the first intermission . . ., but they really shouldn’t:  The Front Page takes a long time to warm up, but once it does, it proves worth the wait.” 

On the Time Warner Cable system’s news channel, NY1, Roma Torre called the Front Page revival an “over-caffeinated” and “terrific production,” but warned, “It takes a good hour before the plot . . . kicks in.”  Torre continued, however, that “fortunately, the character actors playing the newspapermen . . . are standouts—each one.   And if it seems that nothing’s happening for a good while, it’s a thrill just to watch these fine performers ply their craft.”  The NY1 reporter further remarked, “The show’s period perfect technical designs deserve a bow as well.”  She especially praised Goodman (“full of bluff and bluster”), Slattery (“displaying tremendous versatility”), and Lane (“bigger than life”).  Torre was particularly complimentary about the way O’Brien “masterfully directed the physical humor” and she concluded, “As for a headline . . . read all about it: ’Front Page’ is a winnah!”  WNYC radio’s Jennifer Vanasco, however, pondered, “Just why anyone thought it would be a good idea to bring ‘The Front Page’ back to Broadway in Fall 2016—an election year—isn’t clear to me.”  Aside from the cast—Lane, “who almost (but doesn’t quite) save the show,” and Slattery, “who, surprisingly, drags the play down”—and its subject, journalism, Vanasco found the total lack of 21st-century political correctness an offense.  “It feels a bit sleazy to watch this play now, a bit tone-deaf,” she stated, listing the inappropriate aspects of the play by today’s standards.  Lane’s performance is “almost funny enough to smooth over the show's unfortunate dialogue,” but he “just can’t do it alone.”  The WNYC reviewer declared, “For ‘The Front Page’ to work in our contemporary era, it needs a rewrite,” and suggested some changes O’Brien might have made to remedy the problems: “multi-racial casting.  A female reporter or mayor.  Some judicious chopping of terms like ‘bazooms.’”  (I don’t usually comment on reviewers notices in my play reports, but do I have to point out why this is so wrong?  Applying the standards of today to a work from almost 90 years ago?  It would be exactly like John Ashcroft draping the partially nude, Depression-era statues of Spirit of Justice and Majesty of Law in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice in 2002.)

Robert Kahn of WNBC, the network-owned television outlet in New York, characterized The Front Page as a “frenetic comedy” and the Broadway revival as a “grand-looking new production.”  Kahn reported that “it takes a while for ‘The Front Page’ to hit its stride,” but “things really pick up” when Lane, “in classic form,” “make[s] his entrance.”  The TV reviewer added, “Like Lane, [Slattery’s] adept with the physical comedy, and seems to be having a great time,” but “Goodman doesn’t fare quite as well in a one-note role.”  He noted that The Front Page “shows its age,” but “the pros . . . know how to manage the material and deliver an ink-stained good time.”  (Having commented on the un-PC aspects of The Front Page, Kahn remarked, as if in response to WNYC’s Vanasco: “This is a period piece that hearkens back to a time when reporters carried flasks and an HR rep would be tossed out a window if she introduced a dialogue about harassment or proper workplace behavior.”)

Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press opened his review with a little parody: “This sap of a play is older than yesterday’s news.  But, I’ll level with you.  This is the God’s honest truth: A fellow named Nathan Lane somehow saves it.”  Calling the play “the most jaundiced view of journalism ever to grace a stage,” Kennedy reported, “The play has not aged well and may have you wondering why this 88-year-old needs another spin.  Then Lane shows up deep into Act 2 in the nick of time.”  The AP review-writer asserted, Lane’s “dry humor and gift for physical comedy have never been more urgently needed.”  The play “smells a little off and it’s hopelessly old-fashioned, like a weird uncle who shows up on holidays.”  Still, Kennedy acknowledged, “once in a while it’s sort of fun.”  The director “has not worked out all the kinks in a script that often sounds like a machine gun of words” and not all the actors handle the play’s style effectively, and “[w]ithout Lane, there’s little reason for this revival.”  Essentially, Kennedy asserted, Lane makes you forget all the deficiencies of the play and the production.  “You are watching a master at work and that’s the headline, period.”