Stop the presses: Knight (center) and company
in The Front Page.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Ron Daniels
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through
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
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.
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
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.