Johnny On A Spot

by Joseph Pisano

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 12, 2008

Robert O’Gorman,Carter Roy,Christian Rummel,Marc Ginsburg, Michael E. Lopez,Mark Manley and Laura Daniel in "Johnnny On A Spot"
Robert O’Gorman,Carter Roy,Christian Rummel,Marc Ginsburg, Michael E. Lopez,Mark Manley and Laura Daniel in "Johnnny On A Spot"  (Source: Dick Larson)

The Peccadillo Theater Company's revival of Charles MacArthur's Johnny On A Spot could give a cultural studies academic reams of handwringing lecture fodder. First staged in 1942, MacArthur's political farce is punctuated by jarringly unenlightened stereotyping. Two characters in particular suggest that MacArthur was creatively handicapped by a closed social circle: Pepi Pisano (no relation), a criminally-inclined dimwit, and Lucius, a compliant African- American porter. Add in an epithet spoken against an unseen Chinese-American laundress, and "Johnny On A Spot" is, at the very least, a less than obvious revival choice.

The Peccadillo Theater Company specializes in saving obscure plays from the dustbin of history. Given the play's period sensibilities, some might question whether "Johnny On A Spot," whose 1942 premiere was its first and last run on a New York stage, merits saving.

According to Dr. William Peterson, the Peccadillo's dramaturge, that first run of "Johnny On A Spot" lasted only four performances, its abrupt closing precipated by the reaction of the New York critics. They deemed the play's content objectionable, not because of MacArthur's social prejudices, but rather because of his cutting depiction of American politics especially at a time when the U.S was fighting a world war on its heels.

Reviving a proven commercial flop that trades in troubling racial and ethnic stereotypes certainly seems a tad masochistic for an off-Broadway theater company, but it could also be regarded as an act of historical preservation, an attempt to acquaint modern audiences with a play that was indisputably a product of its time, an era that both negatively and positively influenced the play's writer. If MacArthur were an inconsequential theatrical figure, then this revival might be considered foolish, but MacArthur is one of the most influential and adept comedic playwrights of the last hundred years, collaboratively responsible, with his long-time writing partner Ben Hecht, for authoring screwball classics like "Twentieth Century" and "The Front Page."

In fact, Hecht and MacArthur are often credited for inventing and popularizing the screwball comedy as a subgenre, one that Depression-era Americans found comforting because of its unabashed devotion to escapism. "Johnny On A Spot" is the only play MacArthur ever wrote by himself, and for this reason alone, it warrants a full production. Like MacArthur's collaborative works, "Johnny On A Spot" also exemplifies the screwball comedy at its slapstick best.

Post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and post-, well, everything else, the play's plot no longer seems subversive; few contemporary theatergoers would summarily dismiss MacArthur's central contention that American politics is populated by self-interested rogues, willing to compromise democratic principles to enrich themselves and their associates. Still, theatergoers might be surprised to learn that modern political cynicism is not as modern as they presumed.

"Johnny On A Spot" centers on the increasingly desperate machinations of Nicky Allen, the campaign manager for Governor Upjohn, a Southern good ol' boy whose impulse control problems are undermining his chance of becoming a U.S senator. Complicating Nicky's efforts (serial complication being essential to good screwball comedy) is a coterie of devious rubes each with their own self-interested agenda. The comedic anxiety builds up a satisfying crescendo, and MacArthur caps his play with a statement that gives all the preceding silliness a politically perceptive spin.

The cast's performances range from good to excellent, demonstrating the precision line delivery, fearless goofiness, and over-the-top physicality needed to make screwball comedy work. As Barbara Webster, the cunningly ditsy and lovelorn niece of a corrupt judge, Laura Daniel shows off each of these attributes to perfect comic effect, crafting the play's standout performance. Ellen Zolezzi, who portrays Julie Glynn, Governor Upjohn's sarcastic, though loyal secretary also deserves a special mention. In a screwball comedy, the absurdity of a given scene is usually best accentuated by the commentary and/or body language of one character that is obviously smarter than everyone else in the immediate vicinity. Julie is this indispensible character, and Zolezzi devastatingly deadpans her way through "Johnny On A Spot," delivering potshots and comebacks that help establish Julie as the play's moral center and her happiness as the audience's rooting interest.

Director Dan Wackerman keeps everything properly manic and, not to be undervalued, coherent. With 25 characters to manage, there is ample opportunity to lose the audience's attention.

Although Wackerman's direction is solid, he is most impressive as the Peccadillo's artistic director. It takes admirable integrity to execute a production that broadens your audience's historical appreciation of theater, while also risking the alienation of this audience in the process. Of course Wackerman could have excised a few characters and some dialogue, sanitizing "Johnny On A Spot" and thus avoiding potential controversy, but his choice was braver. Wackerman respected his audience's intelligence, allowing it to judge for itself MacArthur's strengths and faults.

"Johnny on a Spot" runs through Oct. 4, Thursdays to Sundays, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St., New York, NY. For tickets, visit

Joseph Pisano is a freelance writer living in New York.