Stage Door Review

The Front Page

Friday, August 16, 2019

✭✭

by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, adapted by Michael Healey, directed by Graham Abbey

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

August 15-October 25, 2019

Earl Williams: “I ain't important. It's humanity that's important”

The Stratford Festival has mounted a thoroughly unpleasant revival of The Front Page, the great 1928 comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The play has been the source for four movies, a television series and a musical and the most famous film remake, His Girl Friday (1940), was itself remade as a play in 2003 which the Shaw Festival presented in 2012. The original play is classified as a comedy since in general the good end happily and the bad unhappily. Yet, if it is a comedy it is a very dark one since its satire of corruption both in government and in journalism is so biting.

Stratford has hired Michael Healey adapt a play that, except for its use of racial epithets, does not need adaptation. Healey’s goal and that of director Graham Abbey seems to be to turn this dark comedy into a screwball farce. All they succeed in creating is a high decibel, three-hour shouting match that completely misses the point of the play.

Set in Chicago in 1928 the play focusses on Hildebrand”Hildy” Johnson, the star reporter for the Herald Examiner. He joins the reporters for seven other newspapers who are all camped out in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building that overlooks the gallows of the Cook County Jail. The reporters are there to phone in eyewitness stories about the execution of Earl Williams, a white man and an avowed Communist, who has been convicted of killing a black policeman. Williams has always maintained his innocence, but the Mayor and Sheriff Hartman are looking forward to the execution because they believe it will secure them the Black vote they need to be re-elected in the upcoming municipal elections.

Hildy, however, is not interested in the story. He has come to the press room to say goodbye to his friends because that night he has quit the newspaper and is leaving for New York to get married and to take a higher-paying job in his fiancée’s father’s advertising company. Hildy is all set to leave when sirens blare because a prisoner has escaped. All the reporters except Hildy rush out of the room to get the latest news. The prisoner happens to be Earl Williams and the place he chooses to hide is the press room. Hildy’s chat with Williams reveals that Williams’s crime was an accident and Hildy realizes that the Mayor and Sheriff have exerted their influence to have Williams condemned to death simply to aid their re-election.

In the original Hildy phones his editor, Walter Burns, to tell him he has caught Williams and has scooped all the other papers. In Healey’s adaption Hildy phones Cookie Burns, the owner of the Herald-Examiner who took over the paper after her husband’s death. She arrives and the question becomes how to keep Williams’s presence in the press room a secret when it will soon be invaded when all the reporters return. Hildy, who obviously can’t let such a story go, has to keep putting off his fiancée and her mother who are trying to get him to leave.

The story clearly has comedic elements, but murder, execution and the ghoulish waiting of the press to witness death by hanging is hardly the usual set-up for a comedy. In the course of the action the reporters are shown vetting various stories and choosing the most gruesome ones for publication. They are seen to exaggerate the facts and, when there are no facts, to invent them. It is up to the director to decide how comic the story and these characters really are.

In the 1986 Lincoln Center revival, Jerry Zaks turned the play into a nostalgic look at the good old days of newspaper reporting and glossed over the darker aspects of the story. In the Shaw Festival’s 1994 revival, the best version I have ever seen, Neil Munro allowed the dark aspects of the play to be dark and did not try to hide the dog-eat-dog world of the reporters who may joke with each other but who are also desperate to scoop each other. The lengths to which Burns is willing to keep Hildy with the paper and ruin his marriage are funny mostly because they are so brazenly unscrupulous. And why exactly does Burns rely on a known criminal like Diamond Louie to do his dirty work? What dirty work does a newspaper editor or owner need doing? Under Munro, Hildy’s attempt to present the truth about Williams and the conspiracy of the Mayor and Sheriff were the one bright light shining in a world where both the press and the government are corrupt.

Healey’s adaptation pretends there are no dark aspects to the story. The worse example of Healey’s attempt to soften the play comes in the second act. Mollie Molloy, a prostitute who brought Williams out of rain after he accidentally shot the victim, has been reviled by the press corps and stories fabricated that she is Williams’s girlfriend. Molloy has been put in charge of guarding Williams who is hiding inside the roll top desk of one of the reporters. When the reporters burst in they make cruel fun of Molloy as usual and the owner of the desk goes to open it. To distract the reporters and to escape their jibes, Molloy jumps out of the window which is 20 feet from the ground. Everyone believes she has killed herself, but Hildy notices she is still moving. 

In Healey’s version immediately after this shocking event Cookie Burns fires a gun to get the attention of everyone looking out the window and makes a joke that she’d commit suicide too if she had to work with these guys. Then the topic is forgotten. In the original there is no gunshot to distract us from Mollie’s fall and no tasteless joke. Hildy, stunned, mutters, “At least she’s not dead” and the shock of Molloy’s action is allowed to linger. Even though “still moving” after a fall of 20 feet is no guarantee that Molloy will survive the fall, Healey has deliberately tried to minimize the event and even even tries in vain to make it funny.

In Healey’s version when Hildy’s future mother-in-law berates the reporters for hounding Molloy to her death, Burns tells Diamond Louie to “take her wherever she wants to go”. Louie mistakes this as code for “kidnap her” and Burns is absolved for being misinterpreted. In the original Burns specifically tells Louie, “Take her over to Polack Mike’s, and lock her up. Tell ‘em it’s a case of delirium tremens”. Healey thus tries to conceal Burns’s outright thuggishness in the original.

Healey attempts to lighten the darkness and lessen the bite of the play from beginning to end. Omitting the racial slurs used by the reporters may please the politically correct but leaving them in demonstrates how callous the group of reporters actually is. Strangely, Healey has decided Williams is insane and has cut many of his lines where he proves he is not. In the original, but not in Healey, Williams tells Mollie, “I ain’t important. It’s humanity that’s important, like I told you. Humanity is a wonderful thing, Mollie” to which Mollie replies, “No, it ain’t. They’re just dirty murderers. Look at what they done to you – and me”.

This exchange cements the portrayal in the original of the reporters being just as corrupt as the politicians. The jobless Williams and the prostitute Mollie are the victims of a cruel society. Without this exchange the play loses any moral heft it could have had.

Healey has given Abbey a sanitized adaptation at odds with the original play and Abbey’s inconsistent direction is at odds with enjoyable comedy. The original play as directed by George S. Kaufman, the first film version of 1931 and the film His Girl Friday were all famous for the machine-gun delivery of Hecht and MacArthur’s dialogue. Abbey’s version begins so languidly we wonder when he is ever going to pick up the pace. He never does. The play is set in Chicago but from the wayward accents of the actors that wander all over the US, sometimes even in the same speech, you would never know it. Working from the theory that louder is funnier, Abbey has the cast turn up the decibel level higher in each act so that by Act 3 the characters are shouting at each other even when they have no reason to shout. Maev Beaty playing Burns even grew hoarse during the show on opening night.

With the presumed goal of making the play funnier, Abbey persuades even his best actors to play their roles as if they were in a panto. As Beaty mugs outrageously and seems to be auditioning for Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Mike Shara runs Beaty a close second in the mugging and silly walks department with the addition of bizarre posing. Michael Blake, this year’s excellent Othello, for unknown reason speaks in falsetto as the criminal Diamond Louie. Juan Chioran plays the Mayor so much as a cartoon villain that you expect him to twirl his moustache and utter an evil laugh at any moment.

On the plus side, the core group seven reporters function well as a ensemble-within-an-ensemble although their interactions could be even tighter. The two standouts of this group are Michael Spencer-Davis as an obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac and Jamie Mac as a banjo-playing layabout. 

Three actors somehow manage to play their roles without exaggeration. Foremost of these is Ben Carlson, who plays Hildy Johnson with such focus and precision he seems to be in an entirely different play from the others. Sarah Dodd as Mollie Molloy and Johnathan Sousa as Earl Williams play their characters with utmost seriousness as they should since these two are the touchstones of humanity in the otherwise inhuman world that surrounds them. Healey and Abbey try to make Mollie’s harassment by the reporters funny but it never is and should not be. Sousa communicates more through his physical presence than others do through words and reveals Williams as a frightened and harmless human being whose very weakness entices others to crush him. In the original play, Williams frequently bangs on the closed roll-top for ask for air. Healey omits this since, it seems, Williams’s suffering or Mollie’s would get in the way of his superficial notion of comedy.

During the first of the two intermissions I heard the man behind me exclaim, “Well, now I’m expecting the Three Stooges to turn up any minute”. That is exactly the level to which Healey has dumbed down the play and Abbey has dumbed down the production. Anyone who has read the original or who was lucky enough to see Neil Munro’s production at the Shaw Festival will know that Hecht and MacArthur wrote a comedy that is far more complex in tone, theme and emotion than Healey or Abbey have understood. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Ben Carlson as Hildy Johnson; Maev Beaty as Cookie Burns and Michael Spencer-Davis as Roy V. Bensinger; Johnanthan Sousa as Earl Williams; Mike Shara as Sheriff Hartman. © 2019 Emily Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.