BWW Reviews: THE GOOD MORNING AMERICA JOHNNY JOHNSON DREAM SHOW - Red Herrings
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by Duncan Pflaster
John Strasberg’s new play The Good Morning America Johnny Johnson Dream Show is an ambitious work of agitprop theatre about a talk show host who has sold out on his ideals. Johnny Johnson (Dennis Davies) is in the green room at his show, preparing for the day with his assistants Maria (Beverlix Jean-Baptiste), Rob (Ruth Gumera), and Louise (Jodi Monaco), and meets his new guest Magda (Jacqueline Jacobus), a psychic medium he’s brought in because it’s November 1st, the Day of the Dead, and hoping she’ll do an on-air séance. Unfortunately for Johnny, the medium’s presence instead enables him to hear and see his dead mother (Audrey Lavine), who has been haunting his green room. And meanwhile, a group of historical and semi-fictional people also arrive- Margaret Sanger (Ferelith Young), Mary Mother of God (Anne Pasquale), Hamlet (Nick Baldock), Mark Twain (Keith Herron), Plato (Bob Jester), Abraham (Stephen Dym), a female violin-playing Albert Einstein (Virginia Armitage), Adolf Hitler (Javier Machado), and Bonnie and Clyde (Homa Hynes and Wes Seals). All of them have things to say about how Americans are living their lives now. All of this pedantic hoopla is ostensibly to make Johnny follow his mother’s wishes and speak about the McCarthy Era and how she was blacklisted on his talk show that morning, despite the show's producers putting the kibosh on his plans.
The play is very little more than an excuse to lecture the audience on politics, history, and personal responsibility. It is not unentertaining from time to time, but the majority of the evening is tedious, as so many points of view just become a muddled soup of diatribes. A lot of it frankly doesn’t make much sense, as the line between whether this impromptu séance is actually literally happening or just a dream Johnny is having (or possibly something more, as an enigmatic character named D.T. (Mike Roche) claims?) is continually blurred and the fourth wall is broken. Hamlet mentions being glad to be not portrayed by “a mummer” for once, even though he spends most of the play posing attractively in tights and quoting mellifluously from Shakespeare’s rendition of his life- not to mention from other Shakespeare works which the historical Hamlet (if, in fact, there even was one) would not have known.
The acting varies wildly- some of the performers seem to have never stepped on a stage before, and several of them were clearly forgetting their lines with alarming frequency the night I attended. Some of them merely seem to be standing around on the stage waiting for their turn to talk. Some of this is the fault of the script, which is overladen with clunky exposition of the “Hello, person I already know, how is your distinguishing characteristic today?” variety, and extensive stilted monologues about Communism, McCarthyism, and Nazism. Some characters seem to be simply forgotten about for long stretches of time (Abraham, Louise, Magda, Einstein), as if the playwright honestly didn’t know what to do with them either once they arrived (It’s a visceral thrill to see Bonnie and Clyde hog-tie Hitler, but that gentleman does little more than sputter incoherently about it). The playwright also directs, and often has the characters literally standing around watching the action. None of the underdeveloped modern-day characters seem more than dully surprised to have these Persons of Historical Interest arriving in the present day. Davies makes the strange decision to play the titular character as wooden and deadpan till the last few seconds, and since he's the viewpoint character, that gives the pivotal moments of the play the emotional depth of American cheese (which may or may not have been an intentional Brechtian choice, as we really don’t get much information about Johnny’s life before these strange events begin to occur, it may have been an attempt to make Johnny an Everyman type). The most engaging performers are the luminous Ferelith Young, who invests her Sanger with a deeply-felt zeal, Wes Seals as a hilariously contemplative Clyde, Homa Hynes as his giddy Bonnie (the two are both adorable and inject some much-needed vivacity into the piece), and Audrey Levine, who wears her emotions on her sleeve in the thankless role of “Mother”. Herron also is funny as Mark Twain, as most of his lines are simply quotes from the man himself, and he lands them with smirking aplomb. Anne Pasquale does an amusing job as a borscht-belt style Mother of God, but is given little of substance to play.
It’s clear that Strasberg believes this hubristic play may be an instrument for social change, a wakeup call for America, and while certainly the ideas presented give uncooked food for thought, political screeds that are unmotivated by character and need are just as boring in the theatre as they are in real life, and there is no overarching defining thesis here to drag the play together (and frankly, spewing leftist politics at an off-off-Broadway audience is most likely preaching to the choir, who are likely to be bored). In this surreal dream-world, almost no one onstage actually needs anything from anyone else, so the play becomes nothing more than a pageant of political ideals from 17 actors. I’m still not sure if the Occupy Wall Street hipstress sitting behind me who was carrying a sign and occasionally shouting things out to the stage was part of the show or not. If that sort of randomness is your cup of tea, you might enjoy this show.
Good Morning America Johnny Johnson Dream Show
Written and directed by John Strasberg
Performances beginning November 17; Opening November 20 and will run through December 18, 2011
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM; Sunday at 7:30PM
(No Show on Thursday, November 24, Added matinee Saturday, December 17 at 2PM)
The Living Theatre is located at 21 Clinton St.
Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting www.SmartTix.com or calling 212 868 4444
For more information about the Accidental Repertory Theater, visit www.accidentalrep.org.