Playwright: Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. At: Timeline Theatre at Baird Hall
in the UCC church, 615 W. Wellington. Phone: 773-281-8463; $28-$38. Runs through: June 12
The year is 1928: Newspapers are big business. Editors receive their stories via typewriter and telephone (the latter requiring the services of an operator). A salary of $100 a week is riches beyond imagination. The reporters assembled in the press room of the Cook County courthouse awaiting the execution-by-hanging of a cop-killing political radical are (with the exception of the effete Tribune correspondent) a cigar-smoking, whiskey-swilling, vulgar, misogynist, racist, uniformly-male pack of scoop-hungry newshounds who treat uniformed patrolmen as errand boys, greet gangsters with unconcealed camaraderie, openly jeer the sheriff and the mayor, and revel in their intimate fraternity with the underbelly of this corrupt windy city.
And doncha just love them? Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur did, painting an indelibly romantic portrait of their fellow crime beat chroniclers, steeped in the kind of take-no-prisoners mentality we now associate with war correspondents. So what if they harass an innocent witness into attempting suicide? Who cares that the doomed criminal is a scapegoat, his threat to the public exaggerated in service of political advantage? Whattaya mean, "journalistic ethics"are you some kind of egghead? The only goal is the lowdown on the event of the momentthe lower, the better.
So this is not hard-hitting social drama, like Sidney Kingsley's Detective Story or Elmer Rice's Street Scene. Audiences are advised to park their moral sensibilities at the entrance (accessed, appropriately, through the office latrine). This is Marx Brothers-style screwball comedy, and what counts in this genre are revelations and reversals occurring at whiplash-inducing speed, while never slipping the control of the actors whose task is to stay firmly rooted in character while maintaining a verbal and physical pace commensurate with thousand-yard sprints.
Fortunately, the authors wrote their Wild-West-of-Clark-Street adventure as an ensemble piece, allotting each of its players intermittent rest periods to conserve their energies for the final madcap melée. Leading the charge is PJ Powers as the fourth-estate veteran unable to resist the call of a breaking story, closely followed by a squad of intrepid performers who navigate Collette Pollard and Julia Eberhardt's hyperrealistic boat-in-the-bottle environment (note the peanut shells on one of the desks) with the agility of ballet dancers in wilting serge and crumpled fedoras.