Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Also see Nancy's review of Beasley's Christmas Party
Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, the play gets off to a raw, raucous start with graphic sounds of lovemaking on the sofa bed in the dim light of Frankie's one-room apartment. Building on that climactical moment, the first act slowly but surely heats to an intense melding of two contrasting personalities. I couldn't imagine allowing an intermission to interrupt the mesmerizing flow of the story and even thought that McNally's play felt complete when the title music by Debussy swelled and the stage went dark at the break. Yet, the second act offers a different, perhaps deeper, emotional intensity as the characters soften to let the chinks in their armor show.
McNally has created a twosome who seem less than ideally suited for each other and, to prove it, Frankie and Johnny repeatedly butt heads throughout the course of their long evening together. Johnny grasps at every coincidence of shared experience as if it were a life preserver tossed to a man overboard, hoping to convince Frankie that they are soul mates who belong together. She sees him as being too needy and wanting more from her than she is able or willing to give. There is a wall of disparity between them: Johnny's mantra is that life is short, so you have to go for it, while Frankie has given up on finding "it." Yet, she is attracted to and intrigued by him, a short order cook with "a dictionary and a copy of Shakespeare in (his) locker," in spite of her hesitation.
The more the characters reveal themselves, the more we see how much they are aliketwo wounded birds in search of a safe haven. For all of her tough talk and arms-length staving off of Johnny's affections, Frankie is starved for love and attention. She relates a childhood remembrance of her "Nana" leaning across her bed one night to close the blinds to protect her from the moonlight. "In that one moment, I think I knew what it was like to be loved. Really loved. I was so safe, so protected." In that one moment in all of the wonderful moments of Gottlieb's performance, her expression captures every nuance of Frankie's yearning and sadness. Pemberton makes his portrayal of Johnny's brash persistence look easy, but he is ultimately called upon to show his vulnerability to win over both Frankie and the audience. His change of manner is sudden and dramatic, more so because of his aplomb with the lighter side of the character.
Ocampo-Guzman approaches the nudity and mature themes of Frankie and Johnny artistically and responsibly. Perhaps the most important element is that Gottfried and Pemberton are natural and comfortable in their own skin, as well as with each other (they are married in real life), but the director takes care not to flaunt their bodies in any way. Rather, he presents the realism of a couple in flagrante delicto and the accompanying afterglow with the intimacy it requires, commanding the audience to respect their privacy even as our physical closeness makes it anything but private.
The configuration of the black box space quietly contributes to the gestalt of the play. Placing Erik D. Diaz's set in the far corner of the room reinforces the sense that Frankie and Johnny both have their backs against the wall and that the coming together of these two people may be their last chance at happiness and companionship. Written in 1987, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune has been referred to as a commentary on AIDS and definitely has much to say about growing older and the fragility of life. McNally's skill with dialogue and character development enables him to explore the fears and disappointments, as well as the hope for love and happiness which are inherent in a new relationship. In the hands of Gottlieb and Pemberton at New Rep, hope comes out on top.
Performances through December 19 at New Repertory Theatre in the Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally, Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman; Erik D. Diaz, Scenic Design; Deirdre McCabe-Gerrard, Costume Design; David Reiffel, Sound Design; Lauren L. Duffy, Properties Design; Jayscott Crosley, Production Stage Manager
Cast: Anne Gottlieb (Frankie), Robert Pemberton (Johnny)