Based on their newspaper experience, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote their brilliant, superbly constructed comedy classic depicting and satirizing the competitive Chicago newspaper business of their era and first performed in 1928. Since then there have been various revivals and film adaptations. I even saw a Paris production in French with the cast desperately trying to pick up the hectic very American beat. Now we can celebrate an uproariously funny Broadway staging that expertly captures the work and the period, thanks to a mighty cast, a very large one for a Broadway show these days, and director Jack O’Brian’s super-smart staging.
For those who have never seen the play or a film version, the plot set-up involves Hildy Johnson, a star reporter about to shed the profession to go off to New York and marry a woman from a rich family and start a new career in advertising. But his totally ruthless editor-boss, Walter Burns, schemes to keep him on his staff. Meanwhile, in the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, conveniently located next to a prison, a gang of reporters are passing the time waiting to witness an early morning hanging of a convicted anarchist and write about the gory details. Their chatter is macabre, and something unforeseen and dramatic is about to shatter the vigil.
Set designer Douglas W. Schmidt gives us the perfect news office look, abetted by Ann Roth’s costumes, and O’Brien starts and ends each scene with actors momentarily frozen in place. Nathan Lane as Burns is only heard on the phone in profane conversations with Hildy until he appears late in the second of three acts. The talks with Burns give him a juicy buildup, and when Lane does finally appear as the outrageously non-principled, utterly ruthless editor, he gives a tremendously funny performance, with utter perfection in his timing and energetic manipulation of a situation in order to get a great scoop for his paper, the Examiner. Hildy, of course, can’t resist the last chance to write a story that will make the headlines that Burns covets and keep what they suddenly have going out of the hands of the other reporters and the law.
John Slattery, best known these days for his Emmy-nominated portrayal of Roger Sterling in the TV series “Mad Men,” is excellent as Hildy, capturing the character as written—consumed by the desire for scoops, standing up to Burns, marrying into money and outwardly happy to get out of what he regards as a scummy profession, yet when it comes down to it inwardly conflicted. Slatterly gets it all absolutely right and is a driving force in the play.
The play also pokes fun at political corruption in Chicago, with Sherrif Hartman comically exposed as both corrupt and stupid via a colorful performance by John Goodman. The corrupt Mayor is amusingly played by Dan Florek; I got a kick out of watching him as I have enjoyed him so much as the police department head in TV’s “Law and Order” series.
Robert Morse is a scene-stealer in his role as Mr. Pincus, a messenger with startling news from the governor. He at first comes across as an ineffectual nobody whom the sheriff and mayor think they can easily con and bribe to go away. But Pincus turns out to be incorruptible, with Morse deftly making a side-splitting return at a critical moment.
Jefferson Mays makes the most of the role of the fussy newsman Bensinger, who sits at a roll-top desk and fears germs. Hildy gets him out of the office by pressing close to him with tales about being beset with rashes and other ailments. Mays is one of the play’s delights.
Lewis J. Stadlen is often funny as tough-talking newsman Endicott. John Magaro becomes a center of the action as Earl Williams, the condemned man. Sherie Rene Scott instills intense passion into Mollie Malloy, a hooker who has become an ardent defender ot Williams, the only one in his corner whom we meet. Halley Feiffer plays Peggy Grant, Hildy’s fiancée, and Holland Taylor is her mother, who gets some comically rough handling as she keeps berating Hildy to keep up with the time schedule of taking the train to New York. A host of other characters, all played to perfection, populate the play and the entire cast is displayed in a freeze-frame ensemble for the curtain call before the actors take their individual bows.
One might pick at something here and there, but this is an ultra-successful production designed to keep audiences howling with laughter, a staging that does proper justice to the Hecht-MacArthur work of theater art. At the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 23, 2016.