When the animals ran the journalistic zoo

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(c) Lara Goetsch

PJ Powers, left, plays star reporter Hildy Johnson with Terry Hamilton as his crusty editor in "The Front Page." 

Review: “The Front Page,” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
TimeLine Theatre, Chicago

In its unvarnished original 1928 form, “The Front Page” isn’t just dark comedy. It’s disturbing to watch, this portrait of the newspaper game as the fiefdom of crass, unprincipled reporters and editors, good old boys as cynical and perverse as the corrupt politicians they covered. Viewed through that clear cultural lens, TimeLine Theatre’s tumultuous, blistering production is almost too good.

When I broke into newspapering nearly 50 years ago, still in my teens, I worked for gnarled old editors who’d witnessed firsthand the kind of newsroom and the colorful characters Hecht and MacArthur preserved in “The Front Page.” My mentors remembered the days when the bottle kept in the desk drawer wasn’t Evian, it was Jack Daniels. And it was a men’s club; no women allowed. By the time I came along, all that had changed. Civility, inclusiveness and accountability had become the norm.

Fellow reporters Hecht and MacArthur inhabited the rough and tumble world called Chicago journalism in the early years of the last century. The story they reworked into “The Front Page” is based on historical incidents and figures. It’s bleak, often appalling stuff we behold in this mirror of the times. But you also can’t help getting swept up in it, and TimeLine squeezes the play for all its acid wit.

There’s an election coming up and Chicago’s mayor and sheriff have hit upon a sweet way to secure the 200,000 “colored” votes: They’re about to execute a white man for the shooting death of a black police officer. Problem is, the governor keeps staying the execution. But now the deed is just hours away, and we look in on a press room full of idle reporters playing cards, cracking jokes and waiting for the rope to snap.

These paragons of the fourth estate are a rowdy bunch, lacking only knives to be cut-throat competitors, and yet they’re poker buddies in this tedious interlude before the drop. Phones ring as anxious editors clamor for updates, and occasionally one of the guys calls in a minor feature item that might flesh out the execution story. But the fellas are waiting for something else, too – the arrival of the acknowledged star among them, Hildy Johnson, a brash go-getter who’s finally been roped in by a girl and is about to quit the game for a quieter life. Little does Hildy know.

Once past the extended hubbub that sets the scene, “The Front Page” runs on the charisma and energy of Hildy Johnson, and PJ Powers animates the role with a boundless panache that’s tempered only by the poor lad’s fear of losing his girl as events begin to engulf him. In a cage full of animals, Powers’ Hildy allows us one critter for whom we can actually feel some sympathy.

But we can also love despising Rob Riley as the Mayor, a conscience-free opportunist who never met a scruple he couldn’t get around. To the hapless sheriff, a lawman so dumb that he hands a loaded gun to the condemned man, Bill McGough brings an almost glowing aura of ineptitude. As Hildy’s editor, who sweeps onto the scene when the Big Story turns really big, Terry Hamilton is a wonderful hard-bitten veteran who knows the meaning of news at any price.

The women of “The Front Page” – Mechelle Moe as the hooker with a heart, Bridgette Pechman Clarno as Hildy’s put-upon financée, Angela Bullard as her imperious mother — are cardboard characters who serve mainly to show what rogues the men are.

Director Nick Bowling keeps the action hot and the anxiety high, and designer Collette Pollard’s weathered press room is the real thing, a frightful prospect of beaten wood desks and piled papers. Now that part I actually remember.

Through June 12. www.timelinetheatre.com. (773) 281-8463.