Theatre Review Print



PlayMakers Repertory Company: Legendary Director Gene Saks Gives The Front Page a Fresh, New Look

& Preview: PlayMakers Repertory Company: The Front Page Targets City-Hall Corruption and Dubious Journalistic Ethics in 1928 Chicago

October 8, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Last Saturday night, PlayMakers Repertory Company officially opened its landmark 30th season with a bang a big bang! Legendary stage and screen director and three-time Tony Award® winner Gene Saks has given The Front Page, a much-produced 1928 comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, a fresh, new look by inserting curmudgeonly Chicago Herald Examiner managing editor Walter Burns (Mike Genovese) into the action from the opening curtain.

Saks situates Burns in a manicurist’s chair, on a shoe-shine stand, and at his desk in the newsroom just off the edge of scenic designer Narelle Sissons’ brilliantly conceived and constructed circular set, which faithfully reimagines the press room of the Chicago criminal courts building right down to the last stale cigarette butt, empty liquor bottle, and moldy half-eaten sandwich. So, while Hecht and MacArthur’s colorful assortment of ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate impatiently and irreverently wait all night for the high-profile early-morning hanging of diminutive, mild-mannered anarchist-turned-cop killer Earl Williams (Ken Jennings), Burns vents his spleen about his AWOL star reporter, that big Swede Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson (Grant Goodman).

Gene Saks masterfully orchestrates the monkey business of this comedy for mature audiences today, The Front Page would probably be rated PG 13, for all its four-letter words and he gets remarkably deep and detailed characterizations not merely comic caricatures from each and every cast member in the large PRC cast. This PlayMakers production is a veritable clinic on how to breathe new life into a tired script.

Grant Goodman is terrific a regular ball of fire as cynical ace reporter Hildy Johnson, and Mike Genovese is an absolute delight as Hildy’s irascible and thoroughly unscrupulous boss Walter Burns, whose sulfurous stares and blasphemous harangues cow everyone but Hildy. When Hildy tries to resign to get married to the lovely and socially prominent Peggy Grant (Lori Prince) and move to New York City to work in her uncle’s advertising business, Walter summons all the forces of darkness at his command to torpedo this inconvenient marriage before it costs him his star reporter. Burns’ emissaries include a small-time, but tall and menacing hoodlum named Diamond Louis (John Feltch).

Feltch gives a pip of a performance as mush-mouthed Louie; and Lori Prince is a treat in her twin roles as Jennie, a spunky courthouse scrubwoman, and Peggy Grant, Hildy’s equally spunky fiancée. Julie Fishell is highly amusing in her duel roles as Mrs. Schlosser, the fed-up wife of a missing reporter, and Mrs. Grant, Hildy’s increasingly alarmed future mother-in-law; and Kenneth P. Strong is hilarious as “Woodenshoes” Eichorn, a feeble-minded flatfoot with a complicated theory about how crime can be squelched in the cradle.

Ray Dooley is good as Endicott, the hard-boiled reporter from the Post; David zum Brunnen is funny as Kruger, the banjo-strumming newshound from the Journal of Commerce; and Jeffrey Blair Cornell doubles delightfully as McCue of City Press and Mr. Pincus, a gubernatorial go-between who bears a timely message that the Chicago authorities are loathe to receive. But Ronn Carroll nearly steals the show with his antic impersonation of ultra-prissy reporter and legendary hypochondriac Roy “Listerine” Bensinger of the Tribune.

Hecht and MacArthur save some of their most scathing satire for the corrupt and ruthless career politicians of Chicago; and Samuel Maupin plays the Mayor and Rand Bridges portrays Sheriff Peter B. “Pinky” Hartman as bone-headed career politicians who would do anything quite literally anything to get reelected. (Because Earl Williams killed a “colored” cop, the Mayor and the Sheriff cannot wait to stretch his neck to ensure that their ticket receives the all-important 200,000 votes from the Windy City’s black community.) Indeed, their chuckleheaded schemes to cover up the escape of convicted murderer Earl Williams provide some of the evening’s biggest belly-laughs.

Ken Jennings plays poor, deluded, unlucky Earl with moxie; and Marla Yost is as feisty streetwalker Mollie Malloy, who briefly befriends Williams and believes his imminent execution is a travesty of justice.

This PlayMakers Repertory Company production of The Front Page also has outstanding production values. The smart and stylish Roaring Twenties outfits recreated in loving detail by costume designer James Scott, lighting designer Allen Hahn’s artful illumination of the proceedings, and the aural contributions of sound designer Michèl Marrano and composer M. Anthony Reimer complement scenic designer Narelle Sissons’ splendid set. They help make this PRC presentation truly the bee’s knees.

Note: On Oct. 21st, there will be a 10:30 a.m. Educational Matinee, followed by a group discussion between students and cast members and artistic staff. Study guides will be sent in advance to help prepare students for the performance they will see. Tickets are $5 per student, with teachers and chaperones will be admitted free of charge. (There must be one teacher or chaperone for every 15 students.) To make reservations for this Educational Matinee, telephone PlayMakers Director of Education and Outreach David Lorenc at 919/962-2491.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Front Page Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 11-15, 18-22, and 25-29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 16, 23, and 30, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University if North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be wheelchair-accessible seating and assisted-listening devices available at all performances. Note 2: The Oct. 14th performance will be an All-Access performance, with sign-language interpretation; assisted-listening devices; audio description, Braille playbills, large print playbills, and a tactile tour for patrons with impaired vision; and wheelchair access. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=80 [inactive 2/06]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3740. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021890/ (The Front Page) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032599/ (His Girl Friday). Gene Saks: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=16060 and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0757256/.

 
 
 

PREVIEW: PlayMakers Repertory Company: The Front Page Targets City-Hall Corruption and Dubious Journalistic Ethics in 1928 Chicago

by Robert W. McDowell

PlayMakers Repertory Company will open its 30th season with a classic American comedy, The Front Page by Ben Hecht (1894-1964) and Charles MacArthur (1895-1956), directed by three-time Tony winner Gene Saks. Set in Chicago in 1928, at the height of the Roaring Twenties and the cutthroat competition for readers among Windy City’s seven daily newspapers, The Front Page will preview Oct. 5-7, officially open Oct. 8th with a gala reception following the performance, and run Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 30th in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University if North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I had never wanted to direct [The Front Page],” admits Gene Saks, “but I was asked to direct it now. Although I knew it vaguely, I’d never sat down and read it.”

After reading the script, the New York City native and current resident of East Hampton, NY says, “What appeals to me about [The Front Page] is the excitement both politically and morally about Chicago in that period, and how closely believe it or not [this play] seems to be about America in 2005.”

A seven-time Tony Award® nominee and three-time Tony winner for Biloxi Blues (1985), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), and I Love My Wife (1977) 84-year-old director Gene Saks is making his third trip to the Tar Heel State. He previously directed the pre-Broadway out-of-town tryouts of Broadway Bound (1986), starring Linda Lavin, Jonathan Silverman, and Jason Alexander, and A Month of Sundays (1987), starring Jason Robards, for Theater Previews at Duke in Durham, NC. In a long and distinguished career, Saks has also directed the movie versions of Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), The Odd Couple (1968), and Barefoot in the Park (1967).

The PlayMakers Repertory Company cast for The Front Page includes guest artists Grant Goodman as ace reporter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson of the Chicago Herald Examiner, Mike Genovese as his irascible managing editor Walter Burns, Lori Prince as Johnson’s increasingly impatient fiancée Peggy Grant, Ken Jennings as escaped murderer Earl Williams, Rand Bridges as the Sheriff, Samuel Maupin as the Mayor, Ronn Carroll as Roy Bensinger of the Tribune, David zum Brunnen as Kruger of the Journal of Commerce, and John Feltch as the small-time hood Diamond Louis plus PlayMakers company members Jeffrey Blair Cornell as McCue of City Press and Mr. Pincus, Ray Dooley as Endicott of the Post, Julie Fishell as Mrs. Schlosser and Mrs. Grant, and Kenneth P. Strong as Woodenshoes Eichorn.

“We brought five actors from New York, where I auditioned them with a New York casting director on whom I depended,” says Gene Saks. “Her name is Deborah Brown. However, both Jay Prichard, the production manager [Jason T. Prichard] and the executive director [Donna Bost Heins] of PlayMakers were present. It was a mutual agreement on those actors, although I’m sure that they would have given me my way if I’d differed with them. It was a very pleasant experience. There were four actors from PlayMakers. There are also at least three actors who live in the vicinity [of Chapel Hill], but are professional actors and have worked in New York. The rest of the people are graduate students in drama” in UNC Department of Dramatic Art.

Saks adds, “I think the main thing that attracted me [to The Front Page] is the two main characters, the Machiavellian editor and the star reporter who wants to get married and live a more decent life…. The editor is, I think, a hero to all of us, because of the bad side of us the all-powerful editor who really does a lot toward running the town. He’s really fashioned after William Randolph Hearst. I think he appeals to our sense of power and lack of any moral sense….

“But we’re also attracted to the reporter who wants to get married,” Saks explains. “His future father-in-law runs an advertising agency, so he knows he will be well taken care of financially. [Even] after the penury of newspaper reporting, he’s very ambivalent about leaving the newspaper. He loves reporting. The fire bell rings, and he says, ‘That means such and such a location.’ His fellow reporters say, ‘I thought you were through with the newspaper business.’ Hildy says, ‘I thought it would be a great fire.’ There’s a lot of the young kid in [Hildy], which is very likable.”

He adds, “I also love the atmosphere of Chicago. I think it’s the most American city that we have.”

Saks reveals, “There are several things that I put in the show that are not in the script. In the play, Walter Burns, the editor, never appears during the first act or half of the second act. I decided to make him visible, because I wanted to see him. I think it works very well.

“Most people who come to see the show don’t know that Walter Burns doesn’t appear until the second half of the second act,” Gene Saks explains, “so they won’t know the difference. But I think [making him visible] makes the show more exciting.”

Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were both cynical former reporters who cut their journalistic eyeteeth in the Windy City. They were widely considered the bad boys of American theater when The Front Page made its Broadway debut on Aug. 14, 1928 at the Times Square Theatre.

Staged by director/comic playwright extraordinaire George S. Kaufman, and starring Lee Tracy as Hildy, Osgood Perkins as Walter, and Frances Fuller as Peggy, this scathing exposé of corruption in city hall in Chicago during the 1920s and journalistic ethics that regularly got mangled by reporters in hot pursuit of a “scoop” that would lead to a major story and a byline above the fold on the front page ran for 276 performances on Broadway, and closed in April 1929. There have been three Broadway revivals of The Front Page in 1946, 1969-70, and 1986-87.

The first of the many motion-picture versions of The Front Page, directed by Lewis Milestone, came out in 1931. It starred Pat O’Brien as Hildy, Adolphe Menjou as Walter, and Mary Brian as Peggy; and received three 1931 Academy Award® nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Menjou).

Howard Hawks directed the imaginative and arguably superior 1940 remake, His Girl Friday, which starred Rosalind Russell as Hildy, Cary Grant as Walter, and Ralph Bellamy as Hildy’s fiancé. The Library of Congress added His Girl Friday to the National Film Registry in 1993.

In addition to director Gene Saks, the PlayMakers Repertory Company production team for The Front Page will include scenic designer Narelle Sissons, lighting designer Allen Hahn, costume designer James Scott, sound designer Michèl Marrano, and composer M. Anthony Reimer.

The Front Page is a very complex show,” Gene Saks. There are a lot of technical things in it that we have to master with lights and scenery. The design of the show was a collaboration between Narelle Sissons and myself and a costume designer named Jamie Scott. It’s an unusual design. Not only is it in the round, but it is a round room in the criminal courts building in Chicago in 1928. It was one of those public buildings that was classic Roman in its look, like the Capitol in Washington, DC. It’s a room that given to the press corps by the city to use, where they can put their telephones and sit at tables.”

Saks confesses, “I never knew of such a building myself, but we thought it up. The script says that it’s in the criminal courts building and it’s called the press room. Narelle knows the Paul Green Theatre very well, and so she had a model of the stage and explained the seating to me. We tried several designs, and came up with this idea of making it round. It’s the only set that I’ve ever seen that’s round. I think it works beautifully.

“We have period costumes as well,” notes Gene Saks. “We’ve made it summer, although the script doesn’t specify [a season]. The clothes are summer clothes, summer suits, straw hats. I’m very happy with them. I think we were very successful with the design of the show and the costumes.”

Saks adds, “The lighting is still being worked on, and will be worked on right up until the opening. [Allen Hahn] seems to be a very capable lighting designer whom the scenic designer knows from the past.”

Gene Saks says, “One of the challenges [of staging The Front Page] is mastering the intricacy of the plot and the dialogue, which is written in a style that we’re not very familiar with anymore, and [portraying] a group of characters who, somebody reminded me, are very similar to Glengarry Glen Ross, the [David] Mamet play. They are fast-talking people who are hungry for success.

“It’s very difficult to keep [the production] at that level of intensity for two and a half hours, including the intermission,” Saks says. “The Front Page has three acts, but we’re doing it in two acts. We’re putting the second and third acts together, with just a short blackout about 10 seconds between the two.”

The award-winning theater and film director notes, “I don’t know any of the young actors today. I don’t know many of the old actors anymore,” he quips. “The last two shows that I did on Broadway, or in New York, are Christopher Plummer in Barrymore [1997]… and a play called Mr. Goldwyn [2002], with the late Alan King. In the last few years, there’ve been a lot of new faces, people that I don’t know; so I’m happy to work with a big cast again.”

Note: On Oct. 21st, there will be a 10:30 a.m. Educational Matinee, followed by a group discussion between students and cast members and artistic staff. Study guides will be sent in advance to help prepare students for the performance they will see. Tickets are $5 per student, with teachers and chaperones will be admitted free of charge. (There must be one teacher or chaperone for every 15 students.) To make reservations for this Educational Matinee, telephone PlayMakers Director of Education and Outreach David Lorenc at 919/962-2491.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Front Page Wednesday-Friday previews, Oct. 5-7, at 8 p.m.; Saturday opening-night gala, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 9, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 11-15, 18-22, and 25-29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 16, 23, and 30, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University if North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32, except $40 Oct. 8th opening-night gala. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be wheelchair-accessible seating and assisted-listening devices available at all performances. Note 2: The Oct. 14th performance will be an All-Access performance, with sign-language interpretation; assisted-listening devices; audio description, Braille playbills, large print playbills, and a tactile tour for patrons with impaired vision; and wheelchair access. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=80 [inactive 2/06]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3740. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021890/ (The Front Page) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032599/ (His Girl Friday). Gene Saks: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=16060 and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0757256/.

Edited 10/11/05.