Next Theatre

Johnny on a Spot is like a car stuck in the mud–the engine roars, the wheels spin, but the damn thing doesn’t go anywhere. This is puzzling because all the parts seem to be working well enough. Delightfully eccentric characters get swept up in predicaments that grow more outrageous by the minute. And the dialogue, while not particularly witty, is serviceable. Still, the plot doesn’t build any momentum. The play just sits there, making noise and expending energy, but not providing the audience with much of a ride. When Johnny on a Spot opened in 1942, the critic for the New York Post provided a painfully accurate summary of the play: “It has all the elements of a good farce except one–it isn’t funny.”

Now, everyone knows that the last thing you want to do when a car is stuck in the mud is press down hard on the accelerator, but that’s exactly what director Harriet Spizziri does. She revs up the cast mercilessly, having them fast talking and sprinting from one moment to the next.

Unfortunately, the actors aren’t built to endure such stress, and they begin to malfunction. They interrupt each other and fumble lines. They talk so quickly they become difficult to understand. (Actors refer to the character “Booter” Kusick as “Buddha,” which is especially confusing since he got his nickname by “kicking old friends when they were down.”) They move tentatively, as though unsure of where they’re supposed to be, and when they attempt physical comedy, they look like dancers on the first day of rehearsal, slowly and self-consciously walking through their steps. In short, the faster they go and the harder they try, the deeper this play sinks into the mire.

Johnny on a Spot is the work of the late Charles MacArthur, who had collaborated 14 years earlier with Ben Hecht on The Front Page. Both MacArthur and Hecht were Chicago reporters during the 1920s, when journalism was about as disciplined as the bootlegging industry, and in The Front Page they gleefully depicted the extremes to which their former colleagues would go for a story.

In Johnny on a Spot, MacArthur created another batch of raucous reporters, assigning them to cover the governor of an unnamed southern state. It is 1940. The governor, a notorious boozer and womanizer, is running for the U.S. Senate, but on the day before the election, due to give a crucial radio campaign speech, he gets hopelessly drunk and passes out in the arms of a popular local prostitute. His conniving campaign manager, Nicky Allen, is determined to keep the story out of the papers, so instead of canceling the speech on the radio, Allen persuades the station to record the speech from the governor’s office–where no one can see him. Then Allen plays a speech the governor had recorded a few days earlier. The deception fails, and to make matters worse, Allen discovers that the governor has forgotten to sign a bill providing money for a public maternity hospital. Without the governor’s signature, the entire project–the centerpiece of his campaign–is in jeopardy. The attempts to conceal the governor’s condition, and to get the bill signed without him, set in motion the chaos that engulfs the rest of the play.

Actually, the plot has potential. Ingenious actors probably could squeeze some humor out of the cartoonish characters trapped in these outlandish situations, but, with few exceptions, the 17 cast members in the Next Theatre’s production have all they can do to keep out of each other’s way.

Todd Weeks, who plays Nicky Allen, has the good looks to make the campaign manager a plausible love interest for the office secretary, played by Tria Smith. But Weeks makes his character into a mean, shifty bully–not exactly a portrayal that arouses sympathy. Steve Trovillion has better luck as Booter Kusick, who is supposed to be a mean, shifty bully. Trovillion, who gave a supercharged performance as the crusading gay-rights activist in the Next Theatre’s production of The Normal Heart, brings the same intensity to this role, giving a surefooted performance that seems out of place amidst the stumbling all around him.

Lee Guthrie is loud and unconvincing as a nasty southern belle who has eyes for Nicky Allen. Harry Althaus dithers around as Doc Blossom, the governor’s heir apparent who would rather stay home with his pet birds. (The mechanical parrot that Althaus carries around on his arm in one scene gives a pretty good performance, however.) And Tom Webb gives a sound if uninspired performance as the dim and corrupt Judge Webster.

Since this is an election year, Johnny on a Spot, full of corrupt politicians and political chicanery, makes sense as a choice for the Next Theatre Company, but it wasn’t a good one. As the Post critic said, the play simply isn’t very funny. Without a director willing to impose a distinct point of view on the material, and actors capable of endowing MacArthur’s characters with clear personalities, Johnny on a Spot gets stuck very quickly. And as this production demonstrates, trying to make the play go faster just causes it to sink deeper into its own problems.