Such is the meaty center of The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's creaky 1928 play, the longevity of which may alone have moved it into the status of a classic. In its time, the play's cynicism may have been alarming. But in 2003, its heat couldn't light a cigarette. Except for an exceptional performance or two, the Missouri Repertory Theatre's mounting of the original play is as exciting as reading old newspapers.
A Broadway hit, the original play has been transformed repeatedly in film adaptations. First put on the big screen in 1931, it was reconfigured with a woman, Rosalind Russell, as one of the principals for the 1940 comedy His Girl Friday. For another Front Page incarnation in 1974, the story went back to a male duo (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau); then it was back to mixed genders with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner in 1988's Switching Channels.
That's a heap of residuals for a play that should probably have been put out to pasture.
Directed by Larry Carpenter, the show unfolds in real time in the claustrophobic press room of a Chicago courthouse. A gaggle of newspapermen are biding their time, waiting out the lull before the next morning's hanging of cop killer Earl Williams (Seth Golay). Although a minor character condemns the reporters for their "greasy souls," there's not much evidence of grease or soul. A few actors play types -- Gary Holcombe as a banjo-strumming balladeer, Larry Paulsen as a prissy neat freak -- but there's not much texture in the forty-plus minutes of exposition.
That is, until the entrance of Hildy Johnson, played with illuminating bounce by Dan Snook. The character's energy (he could probably mow down all of his colleagues with a simple exhalation) comes from two sources: He's about to give up the inky life of a reporter, and he's drunk. He plans to ride the evening train to wedded bliss and an advertising job in New York. His peers are alternately envious and livid. (But then, they haven't met his intended, shapelessly played by Rachel Hardin.)
Despite Hildy's enviable glow, the show's a blinding bore. What's worse is that someone thought it would be risky or risqué -- at least very politically incorrect -- to leave intact the reporters' misogyny, homophobia and racism. The latter's the cruelest, with the words coon, nigger and pickaninny used in the first hour. And this is not a show about race. It comes off as crass and pointlessly mean-spirited.
Hecht and MacArthur later wrote about the show that they had initially intended to prod and poke the press but realized that their contempt for the news business was "a bogus attitude." Instead, they created what they fraudulently called "a Valentine thrown to the past, a ballad full of ... love."
Contrast that with the bile coming from the characters' mouths, and it leaves an empty feeling. The Front Page is as sketchily conceived as it was dubiously topical in 1928. There's not one compelling reason to see it.
The $14 million production is based on Gregory Maguire's cult novel about how two young women in their twenties grow into Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. They meet as college coeds, eventually becoming roommates, rivals and, yes, friends. But the show's not completely gooey -- far from it. Stephen Schwartz's music and Winnie Holzman's book tackle deep and important subjects. Among the easiest to summarize: "How do perky Aryans compromise themselves as the world's population takes on more color?"
If you're interested in how the Tin Man lost his heart, how Elphaba's sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, obtained those ruby shoes, and why the Scarecrow seemed to have a history with Elphaba, the answers are all here. Text and subtext both intoxicate, as do the wildly differing but equally dazzling performances of Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, the original Maureen in Rent. Menzel learns about "Defying Gravity" in the jaw-popping close of Act One.
I lucked into opening-night tickets without any scheming or plotting -- I simply bought them at Ticketmaster.com -- and it was fun to walk by paparazzi totally ignoring me. They had Jennifer Grey (whose dad, Joel Grey, plays the Wizard), Carol Burnett and Sarah Jessica Parker (looking predictably adorable in a fairy-princess dress the color of mint-green Jordan Almonds) to worry about.