DESK JOB Jacobs and Richardson.
Unless you're talking a two-minute rendition of Hamlet, it's hard to think of anything more suited to the finger-snapping style of 2nd Story Theatre than a screwball comedy. And none were screwier or more comical than The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which is galloping around the Warren stage through February 15.
Unless you were raised by woodland creatures, you've probably seen the 1940 film classic, His Girl Friday. With Cary Grant playing the badgering editor and Rosalind Russell as his ace reporter, that was one of no less than nine adaptations. The original was a Broadway play of 1928, in a period of tabloid-mentality and fact-oblivious reporting that the microphone-wielding Geraldos of our time must have earnestly studied.
With 20 actors hurtling through two brisk acts, director Ed Shea easily conveys the crowded bustle of a TV screen and with more challenge gets across the temper of the time. Things open with a gang of reporters playing poker in the seedy press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, amidst a forest of those old-fashioned standup telephones on designer Trevor Eliot's convincing set. Every once in a while some tentative information comes in that doesn't rise to the 1920s level of news — a lovers' quarrel/murder gets them excited for a moment, but it happened in Chinatown so it doesn't count.
The reporters are on a deathwatch that evening. The gallows outside their open window is being noisily tested with sandbags, because a convicted murderer is going to be hanged at 7 am. Not only is he accused of being a Red, but he also killed a cop. Since the policeman was black and an election is coming up, even the corrupt mayor (Tom Roberts) is impatient for what passes for justice.
But the real story begins when cocky colleague Hildy Johnson (Jim Sullivan) shows up. He's saying goodbye to the boys while his fiancûe and mother-in-law wait downstairs in a taxi. Before long, the murderer has escaped and, after he climbs in the press room window, Hildy is hiding him in a rolltop desk, protecting his scoop from the others. A fine, farcical time is had by all, especially after Hildy's editor, Walter Burns, shows up. In the best performance of a rollicking ensemble, if occasionally halting on opening night, Bob Colonna makes him a no-nonsense, fast-talking fast thinker out of a Billy Wilder comedy, scheming to get Hildy back in harness.
Sullivan has always been able to make nervous intensity funny, so his Hildy is a hoot, leaping into action like a retired fire horse at the first alarm clang. He has plenty of helpful company. As Molly Malloy, the Whore With a Heart of Gold, Laura Sorensen gives good self-righteousness. Molly is the disbelieved alibi for railroaded Earl Williams (Jonathan Jacobs), who protests, affronted, that he's not a Communist, he's an anarchist. Nudging stereotypes closer to archetypes, Janine Weisman is perfectly horrid (as in perfectly wonderful) as the impatiently shrieking shrew whom Johnson adores, and as her mother, Joan Batting trains her well.
Others crucial to our enjoyment include Luis Astudillo as white-suited gangster Diamond Louis, jauntily Hispanic; John Michael Richardson as Bensinger, the effete reporter whose desk is commandeered; Joe Henderson as an eager guard and penology theorist; and Andrew Stigler as a hapless sheriff.
One matter that might disturb audiences is that the N-word is used by the reporters at one point. Apart from the cold excuse of period accuracy, I think the inclusion works because at no point do we think these amusing guys aren't jerks. One of them, in fact, twice expresses the era's hostility toward women, and actor Tom Bentley doesn't mask the brief pathological anger. Nice contrast in a comedy.
Originally, 2nd Story was going to stage Death of a Salesmen this season, but artistic director Shea figured that a play about a guy who kills himself because he loses his job wasn't such a good idea nowadays. As far as topicality goes, the replacement was perfect, what with the Chicago setting and hyper-venal Mayor Blagojevich in the news. But when it comes to the eye-rolling faux journalism of contemporary pop reporters, that's a timeless complaint that will keep The Front Page in production for as long as such nonsense remains laughable.