31 August 2019
Michael Healey’s new adaptation of the much-adapted 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur newspaper farce starts with boredom. It starts with a bunch of sloppy newsmen and a single newly incorporated newswoman (Michelle Giroux, right at home) just sitting around waiting for something to happen. As a purposeful contrast to the madcap zip of the later acts, I understand the dramaturgical appeal of a slowburn beginning. But holy moly is it a tough watch. If you kick off with energy and momentum, I’ll stick with you no problem through the necessary lulls to come, but a start like this requires trust my cynical heart struggles to grant.
The structure of The Front Page has no ebb and flow, it’s just a steady acceleration from the doldrums of the opening scene straight through to the memorable final line and applause-filled blackout. The effect is aggravating- at the first intermission I was fairly bored, at the second intermission I liked it just fine, but by the end I was all-in (I even cried a little but I cry all the time so don’t take that anecdote too seriously). There are too many vaguely defined characters in the ensemble and the interesting people seem to enter in order of interestingness in line with the pace of the action. Nothing happens until Ben Carlson’s Hildy Johnson enters, far too long after the play begins, then things pick up a little bit. Things get more interesting when we meet an enigma played with wonderful quirk by a standout Johnathan Sousa, foiled beautifully by a lovely, sympathetic Sarah Dodd. But the thing doesn’t really get going until we meet Penelope “Cookie” Burns (Maev Beaty, an actress so consistently engaging that her entrance brings with it a distinct “oh thank god, Maev Beaty’s here” sigh of relief). She doesn’t hit the stage until almost two thirds of the way into the play but, once she does, the production starts to sizzle and sing and other fun words that really just mean “it finally gets good”.
Beaty plays a widowed publisher with the refreshingly blunt crassness of a woman who has had more than enough of your shit. She’s bold, inelegant, distinctly powerful, and can talk anyone into anything. But while the rest of the cast is mostly playing with vague caricature (which is really only effective in the case of Mike Shara who plays the buffoon sheriff with total farcical commitment, his idiocy making the danger of his power all the more terrifying), the humanity of Cookie is highlighted by not hidden behind her massive personality. Healey and Beaty layer in wonderful moments when Cookie’s dedication to honesty looks like freedom. She breaks from her sarcastic needling to point out another character’s unspoken goodness when the other characters on stage weren’t seeing him clearly. She speaks the line “a newspaper can be a useful thing when the people in power act like gangsters”, which is about as 2019 a line as has ever appeared in a play about the 1920s.
Cookie, an update of the original “Walter Burns” character, is a great theatrical protagonist, a meaty role played to hammy perfection by one of Canada’s biggest talents. She’s directed with great thoughtfulness by Graham Abbey who (like he does with his onstage role in Merry Wives) puts conscious effort into elevating the play’s less inspiring moments, to mixed results. The Front Page is a great play about an unconventional newspaper woman and her relationship with a talented but cocky reporter (Carlson is a great fit for this character type but Hildy is dully conventional). It’s such a shame that that’s less than half the play, the rest is a bunch of vaguely bro-ish dudes doing their jobs badly and ordering hamburgers they don’t intend to pay for.