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Stop the presses: Knight (center) and company in The Front Page.

Kill This Story

By Ralph Hammann

The Front Page

By Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Ron Daniels

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 15

Ron Daniels couldn’t be more mistaken about how to direct this play. In the program notes he says, “The important thing we’ve discovered about this play is that there is an expectation of it being a farce, whereas it is in actuality a gritty, realistic, and funny play. . . . I love the amazing affection the authors have for the guys in the press room. . . . This is a tough world. But these guys are and remain lovable.”

Well, the play is a farce, gritty and realistic to be sure, and it also speaks presciently about the media as predators driven into a blood frenzy over human misery. The authors may describe the reporters in the 1927 Chicago press room as “the most amiable bums in the newspaper business,” but this isn’t the play they wrote, and only a fool would hang a production on that predication. Thus, while Daniels conducts his lovefest, the driving force of the play, the selfish ruthlessness of virtually every character, is neglected. Instead of emphasizing their amiability as the reporters chatter through the show, Daniels needs to stress their fierce and pitiless rush to get the scoop.

And rather than luxuriate in the press room atmosphere before the inciting incident arrives, Daniels needs to make substantial use of overlapping dialogue. The seemingly slack and uneventful first part of the play needs to rivet us as we try to get our bearings in this roomful of reporters waiting to get the story on an anarchist, Earl Williams, who is about to be hanged.

For anyone unfamiliar with this deserved-but-rarely-well-served classic, the central plot follows Hildy Johnson’s desperate attempt to break away from his job as star reporter for The Examiner and its conniving editor, Walter Burns. Hildy is getting married and trying to catch a train to New York City with his fiancée and her mother. This action collides with the fate of the anarchist, a corrupt sheriff (Wayne Knight) and a host of colorful characters.

Hildy must be played by an actor who can charm us even at his most selfish, as when he is playing with a poor soul’s life. Jason Butler Harner doesn’t.

Nor are matters helped by a fragmented setting, which is at odds with the naturalism of the writing. Apart from the sound of the gallows being tested, the aural atmosphere is also lacking in appropriate bells and whistles—even the gunshots in a key scene fail to startle as bullets supposedly break windows (one pane, and undramatic at that) and enter the room.

Only Linda Cho’s authentic costumes truly evoke the period and place.

The worst contrivance is a large photograph that is really a scrim through which we see Walter Burns in his office across town as he talks to Hildy on the phone. The effect further breaks the play’s realism and, worse, kills the wonderful build to Burns’ entrance late in the show.

Then there is the problem of the overall running time. The Front Page can be performed in 100 minutes or less, without intermissions. In this production, a 15-minute intermission after act one is followed by a 10-minute intermission after act two. Neither is needed, and the latter kills the pace that begins to develop once Burns arrives on the scene near the end of act two. The whole affair lasts just under three hours—and this is with the curious excision of a scene involving a reporter’s wife.

But there is a saving grace. Perfectly cast as Walter Burns, the brilliant Richard Kind is everything one could want. As the most ruthless man on stage, and without dulling Burns’ savagery, Kind captures our fancy as he bulldozes aside feelings, promises, decency, fairness and respect. He is a comic juggernaut with a mission, and however greedy it is, we love him for being true to himself and for entertaining us with his off-the-cuff outrageous and pleasurably unpolitically correct cruelness. You can’t sugarcoat satire.

Free Birds

Wing It

Book and lyrics by Gordon Cox, music by Kris Kukul, conceived and directed by Suzanne Agins

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 15

The WTF has invested much in the way of talent and resources to present Wing It, which is one of the best productions in the history of the WTF’s Free Theatre. Granted, I’m prejudiced against many of them because I never enjoyed sitting outdoors among picnicking families, gallivanting children and hungry mosquitoes in settings that challenged one to focus on the event (provided it wasn’t rained out), which very often was inaudible. Since his tenure, Rees’ best change has been to bring the Free Theatre indoors and introduce its audiences to a more total theater experience.

Ingeniously adapted from Aristophanes’ Greek comedy The Birds, Wing It is lighter than air yet still manages, amid its wonderfully silly puns (the play might get its own Guinness record for bird-based puns) and outlandish characters, to impart a message that never seems precious, sanctimonious, forced or trite. There is argument as to the meaning of The Birds. Some see it as escapist entertainment about escapism; others, I think more aptly, read it as a satire of utopias or imperialism. Somehow Gordon Cox trippingly embraces both possibilities before he nonchalantly arrives at statement that derives from the seeming improvisatory style in which the story is told and the production is constructed and directed. And that statement, simple yet worth remembering, is that sometimes in life as in drama, you just have to wing it.

The preceding doubtless will not inspire many to rush off to WTF’s Cloudcuckookingdom, a country that is founded when a couple of guys inspire the birds to fly on their own two wings in defiance of humans who mistreat the avian brethren. Could this be nation-building most foully fowl? No matter, the reasons to rush to Wing It are for Cox’s clever lyrics and cocky repartee, Kris Kukel’s refreshingly tuneful music, Suzanne Agins’ inventive direction and crisp pacing, and Jessica Fisch’s and Sarah Turner’s succinct choreography. There are also Antonia Ford-Roberts’ smartly conceived costumes, which look as if they have been made on the fly with equal parts found fabric, colorful magazine pages and inspiration.

But chiefly there is the cast of 14 impressive young actors whose imaginations, movements and vocalizations will us to suspend reason and disbelief as we are seduced into their cuckoo world. All are quite wonderful, from Erica Cenci’s caffeinated Hummingbird to Emma Rosenthal’s knowing minimalism as Little Bird to Brooke Parks’ comic and diverse turns as four characters including the daffy Mockingbird and a hybrid of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, which she pulls off without sophomoric humor.

Holding it all together are Barnett Cohen, Sarah Turner and, especially, Kate Roberts and Jordan Barbour as birds of a charmingly romantic feather. As with Aristophanes’ original, the entire event is just slightly over an hour, but it’s doubtful any will check their watches.

There often aren’t freebies in theater; and when there are, one often gets what he pays for. Here is that odd duck that has been created with such love, craft and enthusiasm that it is priceless.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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