ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
Johnny On A Spot
This solo effort by the playwright best known as a collaborator with Ben Hecht with whom he wrote the hits The Front Page and Twentieth Century has almost nothing to recommend it save its ability to induce a headache and an urge to escape at the first opportunity, something my companion did without batting an eye, and leaving me to suffer as a professional should.
Rather than the satirical farce it aspires to be, Johnny On A Spot is a flippant and sloppy gag and shout fest. A calamitous 4-performance flop on Broadway, it was nevertheless revived briefly in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy of Music nearly thirty years ago. It was also staged in 1994 in London as well as in 1997 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival where I presume audiences must have been forgiving. It's easy to see how the plot that hinges on a governor who, having been expected to make an election-day speech over the radio, dies during a visit to a "sporthouse." seemed like a timely and topical enough premise (shades of the Eliot Spitzer scandal) to tickle the fancy of Dan Wackerman, the artistic director of the Peccadillo Theater.
Notwithstanding its original fate and lack of critical approval, the play isn't amusing or titillating enough to provide even the minimum number of laughs that one might expect in a frenetically paced comedy. It took a full 30 minutes for Wackerman's production to extract the first of a few measly titters from the audience. The plot revolves around Nickey Allen (Carter Roy), a comely, fast-talking but bordering on sleazy, campaign manager from the North, (not dissimilar but more reprehensible than the Hildy Parks character in Front Page). He embarks on a plan to keep the death of the corrupt, womanizing, alcoholic, incumbent Southern governor a secret until he has been elected to the Congress. His machinations provide the juice for the plot and an insurgence of 25 characters, under Wackerman's free-for-all direction. There are, as expected, some appropriately wacky turns, some actors even toying with Southern accents.
This one note play is seriously encumbered by innumerable inane twists. The actors have been encouraged to shout their lines with hurricane force. Perhaps this is because not a word uttered is believable, interesting, or funny.
You can't say that the play actually collapses from all the blowing of hot air because it has no visible structure, certainly not the kind that is usually revered and provided in the classic examples of the genre. The governor is never seen, but we do get a lot of motor-mouthed gibberish from his accommodating secretary and a scheming coterie of political allies. Their dilemma is how to cover up the dead demagogue's peccadillo and move the body to a more acceptable location within 24 hours.
There is every reason to expect an audience to keep reeling from the chaos and confusion supplied by insurgent policemen, various crooks, a forger, some dopey reporters, and the zaftig madam of the "sporthouse," all of whom seem to be engaged in dispensing havoc just for its own sake. How exhausting it is to see a play populated with 25 loony characters trying to find a way to upstage the other in Joseph Spirito's uninteresting setting: the secretary's ridiculously large office outside the private quarters of the Governor. There is a bust on a pedestal that resembles W.C. Fields. That was funny.
Since it is the manager's job to see that no one, especially the inquisitive reporters, get wind of this sort of situation, the action does benefit to some degree from Ellen Zolezzi's only moderately grating performance as the governor's secretary. Dale Carman, as Doc Blossom, the Commissioner of Health & Safety, has the help of a macaw on his shoulder to get a laugh. Mark Manley provides the play's most (and only) amusing moment as the disingenuous Judge Webster, who extemporaneously delivers a nonsensical warm-up speech over the airwaves. Although her voice was strident and abrasive, I found Laura Daniel had the best grip on her role as Barbara Webster, the Judge's fawning (over Nickey) steel magnolia daughter. Margery Beddow delivers a performance that you might expect but no one really deserves, as Pearl LaMonte, the proprietress of the "sporthouse." The only thing left to say about this Johnny is "out, out damn spot."