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“You gotta kill somebody everyday or you don’t get any supper,” Sheriff Hartman intones in the first act of BlackCAST’s “The Front Page,” beginning a night full of power plays and deception. Though the play was written in the 1920s, BlackCAST set its production in a Chicago newsroom from the 1950s, a time in which women and blacks were starting to infiltrate a predominantly white male workforce.
“The Front Page,” which was present last weekend in the Aggasiz Theatre, relies on a single set: a fictional newsroom on Paper Street, Chicago. The play opens with reporters waiting on the execution of Earl Williams (Graham H. Lazar ’12), an alleged communist who is convicted for shooting a policeman. The star reporter for The Chicago Enquirer, Hildy Johnson (Ryan P. Halprin ’12), strolls in smugly with the news that he is leaving the crummy newspaper world, getting married, and moving to New York to enter the glamorous advertising industry. Yet just as Hildy, suitcase in hand, is ready to leave the press room forever, news suddenly breaks: Williams has escaped, and a scramble to find him ensues throughout the whole city. Unable to resist the temptation, Hildy decides to report on the case. But while Hildy is alone in the newsroom, Williams himself climbs in through the pressroom window. He claims that he is innocent and was framed as part of a crooked deal between the city’s sheriff and mayor, who is up for reelection in four days. Under the insistence of his calculating editor, Walter Burns (James M. Leaf ’10), who desperately wants to keep his star reporter, Hildy hides Williams and faces the challenge of extracting him from the newsroom under the noses of corrupt cops and government officials in order to get the exclusive story.
While the battle between the media and politicians takes center stage, the play is made more compelling by the backdrop of Hildy’s personal conflicts. The star reporter struggles with a dilemma that many Harvard students may relate to: the choice between his love life—his fiancée Peggy (Alana C. Ju ’10)—and his passion for his demanding career, embodied by Burns.
Halprin gives a strong performance, conveying this mental battle well. Throughout the play, Halprin persistently exudes the attitude of a torn man, rationalizing his coverage of the story to his wife but unable to answer her accusation that “It’s always a big story, the biggest story in the world and then the next day everybody’s forgotten it—even you!”
From his abrasive language to his overconfident swagger, Leaf creates the image of a greedy, devious businessman. “Expose ’em, we’ll crucify them!” he says. “This ain’t a newspaper story—it’s a career! They’re gonna name streets after you!” Leaf persuades Halprin with an overpowering tone and a gravelly laugh.
The set, designed by Elizabeth B. Rose ’08, is a simple and yet convincing representation of a 1950’s newsroom. It consists of a few desks, chairs, some Harvard emergency red phones, and newspaper clippings hanging on the walls with some crumpled on the floor. Given its small, seemingly simple set, “The Front Page” successfully utilizes sound, lighting, and the actor’s dialogue to convey the fast-paced action of a newsroom.
Despite the show’s dramatic scenes of internal struggle and frantic reporting, “The Front Page” is also a comedy. Characters fire off jokes rapidly, phones ring incessantly, and multiple characters talk over one another simultaneously. One might initially be confused and overwhelmed by the speed at which “The Front Page” progresses. Though the characters’ rapid and overlapping dialogue makes it difficult to fully comprehend their articulations, the production creates a glimpse of the fast-paced Chicago newsroom where you live fast or get left behind.
The actors in this dialogue-driven play speak in an exaggerated Chicago accent peppered with vernacular street talk and wisecracks that are crass, rude, and even borderline vulgar. In keeping with BlackCAST’s desire to create a diverse production, the female actors play characters equally as tough as their male counterparts.
In addition to a number of unexpected revelations, the performances in “The Front Page” keep viewers on their toes. Just when you think you’ve got something or someone figured out, the plot twists again—right until the very last line.
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