‘Front Page’ review: This Broadway revival falls flat

This year’s Tony Award for best opening night publicity stunt (if such a thing actually existed) should surely go to mega-producer Scott Rudin for his starry Broadway revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 newsroom screwball comedy “The Front Page,” which more often than not falls flat in spite of a boisterous atmosphere and heightened comedic tone.

Since “The Front Page” pays homage to the old days of newspaper journalism, Rudin (who produces multiple shows on Broadway each year) insisted that theater critics attend the show on opening night, as they used to do decades ago, instead of two or three nights in advance, which is now the norm. (For the record, I also made a short trip to the opening night party at Sardi’s, where I found myself standing around the likes of Chris Rock, Matthew Broderick and Jeffrey Tambor.)

“The Front Page,” if not exactly a great work of dramatic literature, has nostalgic appeal in its look at wisecracking newspaper reporters on the crime beat, delivering breaking news over the phone from a chaotic, rowdy and gritty environment.

Prized reporter Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), on the verge of getting married and leaving Chicago for good, finds himself embroiled in the story of the year as a death row inmate escapes and hides out in the criminal court’s press room. Pretty soon, corruption is exposed on the part of the local sheriff (John Goodman), and Johnson’s editor (Nathan Lane) tries desperately to keep him committed to the crazy business.

If the plot sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re familiar with the film classic “His Girl Friday,” which essentially is “The Front Page,” but with Hildy Johnson as a woman instead.

Jack O’Brien’s lively and lavish production holds nothing back in terms of busy movement and broad comedy, but the three-act play does not hold up so well by today’s standards, containing fewer one-liners and much more exposition than you’d expect from a comedy. I often found myself admiring the production but unable to enjoy it.

Slattery is an ideal Hildy, with a cool and unfazed aura. Lane steals the final third of the show with an over-the-top performance with shades of Max Bialystock (his shifty and shameless character from “The Producers). Goodman is loud, but strangely ineffective, relying heavily on a country accent.

The funniest moment is actually unintentional. When Slattery announces that his character is planning a new career in advertising, the audience breaks into laughter since Slattery played Roger Sterling on “Mad Men.” As it happens, Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Robert Morse is also on hand to deliver one of several memorable cameos.

“The Front Page” runs at the Broadhurst Theatre through Jan. 29.

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