New Century's 'Front Page' needs more of an edge

May 29, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In the classic newspaper comedy, "The Front Page," the disgruntled fiancee of a star reporter complains, "It's always a big story -- the biggest story in the world, and the next day everybody's forgotten it."

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote that line more than six decades ago, but unlike yesterday's newspaper, "The Front Page" has endured, not only in various film versions, but also in countless stage revivals.

TTC The latest local stab at it comes from New Century Theater, launching the company's summer residency at Goucher College. This hefty script, with its accompanying large cast, is typical of New Century's ambition. However, for much of the evening the tone of director Mark Redfield's production misses the mark.

There simply isn't enough of an edge to the ne'er-do-well reporters we meet hanging around the courthouse on the eve of the execution of a convicted cop killer and self-proclaimed anarchist.

The reason this matters so much is because the press-room gang is a foil for ace reporter Hildy Johnson, who's leaving the newspaper racket to get married. The audience should be able to look at his former cronies and immediately understand why he wants out.

Fortunately, this shortcoming is mitigated somewhat by Dana Whipkey's gung-ho performance as Hildy. Whipkey emphasizes the boyish prankster in Hildy; he sees the newspaper business as a game -- and he loves to play it.

Actually, Hildy's infatuation with the business goes deeper; he's addicted, and his editor knows it. So, when that last juicy story comes along to tempt him, Hildy's boss is right by his side, coaxing him on.

Editor Walter Burns doesn't show up until more than halfway into the play, but Brian P. Chetelat's portrayal is the highlight of New Century's production. This oversized performer has an oversized talent that makes him one of the most intriguing young actors on the local scene. His Walter Burns has a newsman's soul as black as printer's ink; the only time he stops barking orders is when he's trying to double-cross someone.

Even Chetelat, however, occasionally drifts into caricature -- specifically, a Jackie Gleason-like shtick. In fact, caricature overrides reality in several performances, almost as if the director were casting more for type than conviction. Paul Skotarski turns the sheriff into a Jim Varney-like Ernest wimp; Emil Gustav Keller III gives a Stan Laurel imitation as a messenger delivering a last-minute reprieve; and, though he comes closer to the mark, Michael O'Connell portrays the mayor as "All the King's Men" rolled into one.

However, despite the unevenness of the production, this 1930s comedy remains as fresh as tomorrow's news. After all, "The Front Page" is set in an election year, and what could be more topical than politicians twisting judicial events to their advantage -- and reporters trying to catch them at it?

'The Front Page'

When: Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Through June 14.

Where: Mildred Dunnock Theatre, Goucher College.

Tickets: $12.

Call: (410) 426-6889.

**

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