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In Brooklyn, laughing at politics -- a timely revival

Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music. After beginning its first season with Shakespeare, the new BAM Theater Company has moved on to an American play -- dating from 1941 but full of politicians, electioneering, and other subjects appropriate to the present year.

"Johnny on a Spot" is something of a curiosity. It's the only play ever written solo by Charles MacArthur, who is best known for collaborating with Ben Hecht on such works as "The Front Page," "Twentieth Century," and "Gunga Din." Though nearly all MacArthur's plays and screenplays were coauthored by Hecht or some other writer, Hecht felt his partner's solo works were richer and more fiercely humorous than the ones written in tandem. "Johnny" offers shaky evidence for this suggestion.

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The title character is a Southern governor named Upjohn, who never appears onstage, though his dulcet voice is heard intoning a good deal of election-eve rhetoric. His political machine has his future all worked out: After being elected to the Senate, he will appoint an old crony to succeed him in the governorship, and all the party regulars will be duly patronized and rewarded.

But Upjohn fails to cooperate. Hours before the election he expires (offstage). Whereupon his pals -- their own necks in danger -- decide to keep his candidacy alive by hiding the body and feeding prerecorded speeches onto the airwaves until the late Johnny's victory is declared.

Fans of "The Front Page" will immediately recognize the atmosphere of "Johnny on a Spot." The setting swarms with colorful characters, from smoot-talking politicos to out-and-out thugs, all caught in a complex web of professional duties, personal loyalties and animosities, and outlandish plot twists. The humor ranges from glib to savage. Despite the early-'40s period, the action seems thoroughly contemporary -- MacArthur even throws a gasoline shortage (phony) and a born-again revivalist into the stew.

For all the excitement, though, there's a certain hollowness at the center of the show.

There are no good guys here, just different levels of comical corruption. Among the many subplots, some simply aren't worth the bother. And the laughs come in bursts, with dry spells between.

Given these shortcomings in the play itself, it's incumbent on the production to compensate. Under Edward Cornell's direction, the BAM troupe moves a long way in the right direction, the action flows smoothly and often inventively across the stage. But the screwball quality never breaks all the way through. There's an old piece of advice about staging screwball comedy: When in doubt, speed up. The result is an amusing evening -- not an exhilirating one.

Though "Johnny on a Spot" had only a brief run when it was new, it is a workmanlike play with occasional inspiration around the edges. It's a respectable offering for BAM to have settled on, though not a particularly exciting one. It is now in repertory with "The Winter's Tale," and will be joined later this season by Rachel Crothers's "He & She." The season ends with Gorky's "Barbarians."

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For certain, the BAM is a busy place these days.


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