“The Front Page,” a ’20s-style comedy being performed at Pioneer Theatre Company, has several flaws, but the biggest one is this: It’s not funny.
Rarely does a show lend itself to such succinct description, but this one does. Despite being 2 hours and 45 minutes long — way too long for a comedy anyway — there are maybe five really good laughs in it. And one of those is the very last line!
The setting is Chicago, 1928, the night before an anarchist is to be executed by the state. Several reporters from different newspapers are hanging around the press room at the Criminal Courts Building adjacent to the jail, waiting for something to happen. Among them is Hildy Johnson (Michael Lasswell), who is quitting so he can go to New York tonight and get married tomorrow.
But, as fate would have it, Earl Williams the convict (Richard Mathews) escapes from the jail and goes on the lam, with reporters and cops chasing after him. Hildy is torn — for about two seconds — between his love (his fiancee) and his REAL love (yellow journalism) and winds up chasing the story, too.
Lots of stuff happens with the convict hiding in a desk, and a prostitute throwing herself out a window. (In the context of the play, it makes sense.) Eventually, nobody learns anything, nobody gets in trouble because the journalists are as corrupt as the mayor and the sheriff, and we all live happily ever after.
Except that somewhere along the way, director Charles Morey forgot to have anything funny happen. The play is obviously trying to be a farce, though I don’t think it was really written that way. There are some farcical elements — the easy wrap-up at the end, the hiding in the desk, the fact that no great truths are learned — but not enough of them. While a farce uses a variety of stock characters to provide humor, “The Front Page” uses about 17 versions of the same stock character, and none of them are funny. Nearly everyone yells everything, and everyone emotes at the same level. Eventually, everyone starts to sound the same. You could close your eyes and not be able to distinguish which character was talking.
Michael Lasswell certainly gives it his all as Hildy. You can tell he’s working hard as he runs around, trying to milk the story for all it’s worth while at the same time trying to keep his fiancee from giving up on him. And Ross Bickell as his boss, Walter Burns, brings a lot of energy. But the two of them together don’t add up to much, and there is little to involve the viewer in the show. The first act, in particular, is slow and with very little to sink one’s teeth into. The second and third acts are more interesting, but not any funnier.
Two performers stand out. David B. Heuvelman as Murphy, one of the reporters, manages to give some realism to his role, moreso than any of his counterparts. And Deirdre Madigan, as the prostitute whose relationship with the convict goes curiously unexplained, also demonstrates that she knows what she’s doing. Rather than taking control of the stage by yelling, which is what nearly everyone else does, she commands attention the old-fashioned way: by ACTING, and by showing sincerity.
Unfortunately, even these two well-acted parts don’t add much humor. And that’s the most disappointing thing about “The Front Page”: it just doesn’t make you laugh.
I was really disappointed in this play. Everything else I'd seen at Pioneer Theatre Company had been top-notch, and plus the play was about journalists. I figured I couldn't lose. I was very sorry, then, to see the show being so not-funny.
I didn't bother to mention, either, the guy who played a cop named Woodenshoes Eichorn. His accent changed from Scandinavian to Irish to German and remained inconsistent thereafter. Interestingly, it was the same actor who did such a great job as Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire" just two months earlier.