Monomoy Theatre Cuts Political Tensions With 'Johnny On A Spot'

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Entertainment , Local Theater , Arts

Director MichaelJohn McGann (right) oversees a rehearsal of “Johnny On A Spot,” which opens at the Monomoy Theatre in Chatham next Tuesday. Kat Szmit Photo

CHATHAM The Monomoy Theatre's season finale is a play that is known as much for its ribald humor as its fugacious nature, but director MichaelJohn McGann is optimistic that the country's current political climate will propel “Johnny On A Spot” into side-splitting success.

The show, which McGann describes as being “about a Yankee, a fixer, an amanuensis who comes to a Southern governor, gets to be his friend, and starts to work for him,” may be set in days gone by, but remains politically timely, with razor-sharp one-liners that McGann said make the play “so fast and so smart.”

Without spoiling too much of the fun, the play, Charles MacArthur's solo venture, tells the tale of the misadventures that take place when a beloved Southern governor vying for a Congressional seat dies in the arms of a prostitute on election day eve, while thoroughly soused. There's much more, but you'll need to see the show.

What inspired the Monomoy production was, McGann said, simple.

“The unchanging mendacity of human beings in this political season,” he said. “None of us realized how funny it might become, and then suddenly maybe not so funny. I guess it's like Paul Manafort really working for Donald Trump, except we like these people. There's a lot of funny dirty politics in it. I love it because it's wisecracks. It's what they used to call a screwball comedy.”

McGann noted that the play had originally been performed in 1941, but was poorly received in after opening in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, closing a week after it opened.

“It sort of became an orphan of the theater,” McGann said. “It wasn't successful in its first run, and it lay in a drawer for 40 years literally. It's a shame because you almost think, 'God, is it cursed?'”

McGann actually appeared in a production of the show in the early '80s, portraying the young newspaperman Danny Shea, who in this iteration will be played by, well, Daniel Shea, who will be joined by a cast of entertaining and thought-provoking characters.

“It's a funny, funny play,” said McGann. “Twenty lines of this play you would think were written tomorrow morning, never mind today. You just can't believe some of the funny digs about politics. Some things just don't change. One of them is politics.”

McGann said the challenge in rehearsing such a dynamic play is encouraging the actors not to pause during dialogue. Unlike many plays where dramatic pauses are important, the dialogue in “Johnny” is rapid-fire fast, and ripe with edgy wit.

“I'll never forget when we did it in New York in the '80s,” McGann said. “Helen Hayes came and spoke after the show. 'I cannot tell you how much fun it was again to see this ridiculous play,' she told us.”

In spite of the struggles with success the show has had in the past, McGann is confident that the Chatham audience will receive it well. His hope, of course, is laughter.

“Unending, unceasing laughter,” he said. “It's a great, great group of people. They respect the work and I hope they have a great time with it. If things work out, they may hear laughter like maybe they've never heard and they might not hear for a long time again, because it is a funny, funny piece of work.”

“Johnny On A Spot” opens Aug. 23 and runs through Aug. 27 with shows at 8 p.m., and a matinee at 2 p.m. Aug. 25. Tickets for the evening shows are $31, and the matinee $29, and may be purchased online at monomoytheatre.org, or by calling 508-945-1589.