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A CurtainUp Review
Johnny on the Spot
By Elyse Sommer
This is the second time this summer that I find myself introducing a review with a reference to The Drama Dept as an example of successful rummaging through the theatrical attic of forgotten shows. (Our earlier reference pertained to an arcane Chekhov assemblage (Four Of a Kind ). When this young theater company decided to shake the dust from a forgotten 30s show June Moon --(our review)--they were dealing with a forgotten hit. What's more, to give this hit a second life, they opted not to re-play it with the exact same focus of the original. The result: An edgy, new-old hit that combined the old with the new and added up to a brand-new hit.
I'd like to say the above is by way of introducing Johnny On the Spot as a similar success story for a forgotten comedy. Instead, it's by way of explaining why I think the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival probably should have remained in its theatrical attic. The Charles MacArthur's comedic farce was never a big hit, having had a modest Broadway run and a single revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Its basic premise hinges on the disappearance of a none too honest governor and would-be senator just as he's scheduled to make an election day radio speech. The dilemma is heightened by the clamoring of reporters demanding to see the Governor and the desperate efforts of his resourceful campaign manager to save the day. Its Louisiana setting, (the state associated with that famous Pol, Huey Long), circa 1942 coupled with our current climate of political cynicism, you can see why this might seem like a revival ripe for a second chance. Unfortunately, while this Johnny On the Spot does contain some hilarious and on-target moments, its sparkle is so-so, illustrating all too plainly why under-appreciated plays rarely fare as well as revivals of proven winners.
Despite the pleasures of a stylish set by Hugh Landwehr and the satisfaction of seeing a stage filled with more actors than is economically feasible for most Broadway plays, this revival suffers from being directed as a clone of the original. This works well with at least four of the characters whose interpreters manage to give them the called-for sharpness, timing and wit. They are David Scramm as Judge Webster, a man whose appetite for graft is as broad as his waistline; Bruce McVittie as Pepi Pisano, who's assigned to find the missing governor; and Dana Reeve as a tough but loyal secretary, love interest and modern-day reincarnation of similar roles played in the movies by Rosalind Russell. There's also a hilarious bit part of a forger named Dapper, played to the hilt by Michael Rubinstein.
Unfortunately it doesn't work for the mover and star of this enterprise. When you consider that James Naughton only stepped into the role after his first choice, Bill Irwin, backed out to fulfill a movie commitment, he's probably done the best he can--which is to play the central character of the campaign manager, Nicky Allen, as a mix of Chicago' tough guy lawyer-- our review)--and City of Angel's hard-boiled detective. If you've seen Bill Irwin in Fool Moon or as the lead in the recent revival of Moliere's Scapin -- (reviewed here)--you know that this inspired clown, whose body movements inform what he does as much as anything he says, would have added that much needed something new. With an actor whose comic instincts would mesh with those of Schramm and MacVittie's the hilarity might spread over the entire two hours. Even the love story between Nicky and Julie would have been more dynamic, had Nicky been impish and witty instead of just a resourceful, tough-talking New York/Chicago type.
Playing in as well as directing a show is always a problematic undertaking. (Irwin himself was better as the actor than the director of Scapin ). Perhaps if Naughton hadn't been forced to learn lines and take this front and center position, he could have controlled the excesses of Margo Skinner (the town Madam) and Linda Purl (the judge's over-amorous daughter).
All the negatives considered, should you go to see this show?
If you want a laugh a minute, no. If you're satisfied with memorable moments and performances, yes. If you like an old-fashioned production--with lots of actors well choreographed to amusingly outshout each other and get into one another's way on a handsome set replete with an old-fashioned elevator with a sliding brass gate--go for it.