We’d like to think that American society has become more enlightened through the years. We’ve all gone through diversity and gender-sensitivity workshops, and political correctness has forced us all to censor ourselves, since researchers have proven that words actually do hurt people.
So it’s no surprise that some have a hard time laughing at Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of the 1920s play The Front Page. Teeming with sharp jokes and dialogue that smack of crass masculinity and misogyny, The Front Page could be a difficult pill for enlightened audiences to swallow.
Even taking the historical context of the play into account is unsettling. While we can all pat ourselves on the back to see how far we’ve progressed from the gender inequity and poor race relations of The Front Page, we realize that perhaps America hasn’t become as enlightened as we’d like to think, especially when the play’s depiction of corrupt politics and press start to mirror our own.
Written by former newspaper men Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page follows the antics of the people who inhabit the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building in 1928 on the eve of Earl Williams’ hanging. On this particular evening, veteran news reporter Hildy Johnson decides to chuck the newspaper business so he can get married and work at a cushy advertising job in New York. Little does he know that he’s about to become swept up into the story of his career, much to dismay of his fiancée, Peggy Grant.
Along the way, almost every kind of suspicion that audiences have about crooked city government and a power-hungry press get played out. Even though the play is 70 years old and considered a standard of American theater, it still makes audiences uneasy as corruption is jokingly exposed from every direction.
Director Charles Morey points out that The Front Page blends two of his favorite genres in theatre: melodrama and farce. At first it seems as if Morey has deceived us, since the first act plays like slice-of-life realism. The pace is so slow and the characters are so numerous that its hard for the audience to decipher the direction that the play is going. But once Michael Lasswell bursts onto the stage as reporter Hildy Johnson, the play picks up immediately and soon justifies Morey’s blended genre labeling.
Even though Morey’s handling of The Front Page’s genre mix is successful, it proves to be uneven at times. Many of the production’s actresses come off as character types far before the play’s heightened atmosphere would justify their stereotypical performances. Particularly affected by this is Jackie Farrington as Peggy, who comes off as a cardboard and whiny woman. Whether this is Farrington or Morey’s fault is unclear, but you seriously question what exactly Hildy Johnson ever saw in her.
But since the play’s misogynist bent becomes a given, one realizes that the main focus is on the men of the play, their relationships with each other and the unabashed, testosterone-filled world that they create. Luckily, the ensemble of men are likable enough to keep the audience entertained, even though we do feel occasionally guilty at times for laughing with these men, even though they carry themselves like obnoxious junior high students.
Michael Lasswell is particularly endearing as the defiant Hildy. With real-life experience as a journalist himself, Lasswell’s performance is honest as he grapples with demands from both work and his future wife.
As his barking editor Walter Burns, Ross Bickell also breathes fire into his role of a man who will do and say anything to beat the competition and smear his paper’s enemies.
The rest of the male ensemble is also first-rate, turning in polished performances in frequently thankless bit-parts. PTC regulars Frank Gerrish and Max Robinson are particularly effective, along with visiting actors Kermit Brown as an uptight Bensinger and David B. Heuvelman as an uncouth Murphy.
As always, the design work is up to PTC’s high standards, with set designer Gary English creating an idiosyncratic and skewed world; while costume designer K.L. Alberts keeps the audience firmly grounded in the real world of the 1920s, where truth could be stranger than fiction.
With yellow as the primary color for its advertising campaign, the audience should know what kind of journalism to expect from The Front Page. And despite its uneven characterizations and its archaic offenses, PTC’s The Front Page still delivers entertainment worth shouting about.
The Front Page plays until April 4 at Pioneer Theatre Company, located at 1340 E. 300 South. Call 581-6961 for ticket and performance information.