Williamstown Theatre Festival: 'The Front Page' Hold the presses

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In this case, the reporters are passing the time while awaiting news about the impending execution of a convicted cop killer, Earl Williams.

They also are about to lose one of their number — Hildy Johnson, a crack reporter for The Examiner who has, for years, carried on a love-hate relationship with his tough, no-holds-barred boss, Walter Burns, but who now is giving up the career he loves for the woman he loves.

Fate, however, has something else in mind for Hildy. Minutes before Hildy is to board a New York-bound train with his fiance and prospective mother-in-law, the desperate Williams engineers a jail break. The resourceful Hildy, by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, suddenly finds himself staring at the scoop of a decade. It is too hard to resist.

Written in 1928, "The Front Page," which is being given a, by turns, sluggish, loud, busy, unfocused production in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's MainStage, is a deliciously cynical, sharply witty comedy about the Fourth Estate; about truth, passion and the frequently uneasy relationships that exist between reporters and the people they cover, especially politicians. These guys are not above accepting tickets to an event from the same corrupt sheriff (gleefully crafted by Wayne Knight) whose life they make a living hell in print.

Truth is an easy casualty. In this environment, rules are reinvented for the sake of expediency and beating the other guy into print. As long as the story is substantially correct, the rest doesn't matter.

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As it turns out, the issues are far more clearly defined in Hecht and MacArthur's script than they are in WTF's MainStage. Director Ron Daniels' production begins sluggishly and gradually — very gradually — picks up speed. But even at top tempo in the last of the evening's three acts, the center is hollow.

It says a good deal about this production that its chief joys are in the smaller character roles.

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In addition to Knight's delicious ethically challenged sheriff and Tom Bloom's silky, authoritative it-isn't-nice-to-mess-with-me Mayor, there is Kay Walbye's haughty, proper Mrs. Grant, Hildy's soon-to-be mother-in-law; Greg Hildreth's "Woodenshoes" Eichorn, a police officer with a distinctive view on the causes of criminal behavior and how to curb that behavior; Robert Stanton's Bensinger, a fastidious, Monk-like germphobic reporter; Sean Patrick Reilly's dazzlingly snazzy, slippery, morally ambivalent "Diamond" Louie; and John Cariani as an absolutely endearing, wonderfully off-kilter gubernatorial courier.

But the heart of "The Front Page" is the combative relationship between Burns and Hildy. Given Richard Kind's propulsive, dynamic Burns and Jason Butler Harner's ambiguous Hildy, it's no contest.

No space is big enough for Kind's Burns. He prowls the cavernous confines of Riccardo Hernandez' setting like a caged tiger. One way or another he is a study in perpetual motion. His mind never stops working. He's gotten to where he is by being five steps ahead of everyone else.

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His relationship with Hildy is complex. Hildy is Burns' prize but Burns pays a price. Like Burns, Hildy is cocky, too sure of himself. He writes his own rules. Burns has been at this game longer than Hildy but, in all other respects, despite the fact that Burns is Hildy's boss, they are very much equals.

Hildy is natural, a reporter with keen instincts and ruthless resourcefulness. But that man is hard to find in Harner whose Hildy is crafted by ambiguity and insincerity. Ironically, he seems uncomfortably out of place in this press room.

The problem here is not only Harner. While Daniels eventually pumps up the volume, he tones down the characters. This "Front Page" bends toward a gritty, raw realism. But less, in this case, winds up being less. Daniels dampens the play's high style. Rather than gain definition and access, this "Front Page" is out of reach and out of touch. Daniels has lost most of "Front Page's" bite if not its bark.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached by telephone at (413) 496-6212 or e-mail at jborak@berkshireeagle.com.


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