BACK TO NEW YORK: On THE FRONT PAGE, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur

During the past year I’ve enjoyed two overnight hospital stays, my first since my tonsils were removed years ago.  The shoulder and knee replacements were successful and relatively painless, but they were immobilizing enough to preclude major travels.   When I was pretty much anchored  in recovery mode at home, I was asked many times just why was I so eager to go back to New York.  After all, I treasure this town and our quiet little neighborhood, shaded by real trees.  My bride of 52 years and the three four-legged creatures that mean the most to us are here, and we enjoy all the advantages of a great university town.  There are interesting people.  There are 25 movie screens, and more coming this year … (and some of them actually bring in good movies).  There are maybe a dozen producing theater companies doing good work within a short drive.  There are fine restaurants, concerts, games, lectures, film studios, and even a whole slew of ukulele players.   So the question remains:  Why New York?

hqdefaultThe question has many answers.  As an undergraduate, I was a one-hour bus ride from the city.  I would occasionally leave after class on Tuesdays. I’d catch a standing-room show that night, spend the night in an all-night movie theatre showing second run triple-features for $1.00. Awakened and thrown out of the theater at 4:00 a.m. I showered at Grand Central, breakfasted at the Horn & Hardart automat, and hit another movie or two before the Wednesday matinee.  I hit a third show that night before getting the late bus back to school.  For a grand total of about $75, and a few skipped classes, I could manage three Broadway plays, and four or five pretty good movies … even if I slept through two of them (and flunked a course or two).  Nonetheless, the pattern was set.

Later, in my early twenties,  I briefly lived in a tiny apartment on 72nd Street and 8th Avenue while working on a Masters degree at Columbia.  These days I still rarely miss an opportunity to walk by the place, drawn by nostalgia, regret, and no small amount of self-anger.  At the time, I didn’t have the funds, the time, the wits or the energy to take advantage of the readily available theatre scene I was living next door to.  Times have changed … so much in fact that my New York theatre habit is now roughly equivalent to my compulsion for dark chocolate.

Seeing seven excellent plays, mostly at discount prices, for only five nights in a New York City hotel room, is actually reasonably doable.   The energy, sounds and smell of the place get my blood pumping.   As any look back through my past seven years of play-blogging will attest, I’m certainly not opposed to Chicago, London, Shepherdstown WV, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, or any of the other theatrical magnets of the world, when I can get there.  If New York and its noisy, vibrant, energetic theatre scene is no longer  a viable lifestyle for me, it still prods me to temporarily abandon my smug acceptance of all things comfortable … to come out and look around at the world.  It remains my #1 antidote to any dark waves of troubled powerlessness and considerable anger at the political scene.  For years, it has been my #1 travel target.

Back in 1969, I took the bus down to the city from Vermont for a long weekend primarily to see The Front Page, with Robert Ryan, Peggy Cass, Bert Convy and a whole lot of people I’d never heard of.  I loved it.  Written 40 years earlier, in 1928, by two ex-newspapermen, this felt like what we could call docudrama today: an authentic, gritty inside story on how a big city (Chicago) newsroom really operates in the face of a breaking story with potential violence – plenty of suspense and great dirty jokes.

img_0617The recent production, starring John Goodman, John Slattery, Jefferson Mays, Robert Morse and Nathan Lane, was anything but.  Yes, I did alter the order of the cast a bit just now, I believe deservedly so.  Nathan Lane, who is a damn good actor and a superb comedian, was disappointingly out of place in this production.  He doesn’t even enter until Act II. His insistence on doing his own comic schtick, typified by his routine of trying to move a heavy desk, was a distraction to the play as a whole.
It was like we all were expected to take time out from the virtual world of the play to laugh at Nathan Lane; and the more we laughed, the longer it went on.  I was surprised that director Jack O’Brian hadn’t fired him.  Of course, you don’t “fire” Nathan Lane.  He’d stay! … You’d go!

Others in the cast were not so offensively .  John Goodman, whom I’ve greatly admired since Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and  Cable TV’s terrific Treme, was a stunner, as I knew he would be, if not like this:  Standing 6’2″tall, svelte and lithe, he has whole new dimensions (pun intended) of acting ahead of him.  Shortly after completing  10 Cloverfield Lane, he apparently got tired of looking at himself in the mirror,  stopped eating “all the time,” got off sugar, began to exercise rigorously with a trainer, and quickly  lost over 100 pounds (without losing an ounce of his talent).  Equally outstanding were Slattery, late of Mad Men, and a barely recognizable Jefferson Mays (who has won recent Broadway kudos for both I Am My Own Wife and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).  And in a wonderful if tiny  little role, there was another veteran of the Mad Men team, 85-year-old Robert Morse, having every bit as much fun as he had back in 1962, when I saw him play  J. Pierrepont Finch in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

Enough about the people.  How about the play?  Obviously I was prepared to love it as much as I had back in 1969.  I didn’t.  And it wasn’t all Lane’s fault.  In 2016, the play was badly dated, patently offensive to women, dismissive of its audience, trite, full of bad old inside jokes, and just plain corny as all get-out.  It’s all been done much more convincingly, notably by TV’s The Newsroom.   No one seemed too sure of just why they were remounting The Front Page, except as a vehicle for star power, which did after all work: Previews for the limited run began last year on September 20, and the play closed January 29, 2017, having packed ’em in.  In that short amount of time, it apparently managed to pay back all its investors and then some.  Guess that makes mine a distinct minority opinion.  If you missed it, take heart:  You just squirreled away about one sixth the price of a Hamilton ticket down the road.

Five more of the seven plays I saw on December’s trip have also closed:  Santasia, Falsettos, The Encounter, Dead Poets Society, and Love, Love, Love!   It was an eclectic and entirely satisfactory mix, and coming up, I’ll be exploring them all.  Up next though, I’ll talk about the one survivor of the seven, the loud and rowdy School of Rock.

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4 Responses to BACK TO NEW YORK: On THE FRONT PAGE, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur

  1. Jenny Mead says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Front Page. Saw it in January. Despite the star power, it was irritatingly old-fashioned and frenetic and deeply misogynistic. Glad I shared the same space, albeit briefly, with Goodman, Slattery, Morse, and Lane, but that’s about all the positive I took away from this afternoon in the theater.

  2. Jenny Mead says:

    One other thing — LOVED your stories about coming into Manhattan for a marathon theater/movie extravaganza. Always wanted to eat at a Horn & Hardart….although think I read somewhere that versions of the “automat” are surfacing here and there.

  3. Bill, thanks for your interesting thoughts. Your recollections triggered my own, both as an impecunious Columbia undergraduate (for whom $75 would have been a fortune) and later. My own theatre strategy involved mostly cheaper previews, workshop productions (which nearly destroyed Ibsen for me), and the occasional splurge for Cafe LaMama, a revelatory Marat/Sade, Living Theatre, Alice in Wonderland, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill), and a mind-altering (for me) Six Characters in Search of an Author. Jenny, I think that Horn & Hardart is better as nostalgia than it was in person — my own nostalgia is for Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee shops and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs (a world of Burroughs and Bukowski junkies and outcasts). And the subway access to theatre! Here in Los Angeles, the many local theaters complain that no one will drive across town for a play, as indeed I do not, so the theaters have to rely on locals, like a UK pub. How I wish I could join you, Bill and Jenny, for coffee and conversation. Keep up the always interesting blogs, Bill. Maybe you should start one, Jenny, perceptive as you are.

  4. Lon Gowan says:

    Welcome back to writing!
    Love the stories and reviews!
    it was great seeing you in NYC!

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