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Chicago by John Olson

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

First produced Off-Broadway in 1987 and revived on Broadway in 2002, Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune appears on its way to becoming a modern classic and staple of regional theatre. The two-character play, a star vehicle for Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco on Broadway, is a showcase piece for an actor and actress old enough to have developed the chops to command the stage for an hour and a half without a break, all the while showing the range to deliver McNally's witty dialogue and heartbreaking insights. Undoubtedly, many companies and performers will attempt this who shouldn't, but for now, we can enjoy the performances of Steppenwolf company members Laurie Metcalf and Yasen Peyankov. They never overreach or acknowledge that they're in a "vehicle," but give us honest, compassionate portrayals of their characters.

In a play as "high-concept" as this one (two middle-aged, disappointed, lower-middle restaurant workers fall in love), it would be easy for actors and director to make obvious choices that could turn it into something resembling the TV sitcom "Alice." This production suggests a TV sensibility in a good way, with the actors' understated, nuanced performances providing the intimacy of the small screen effectively projected to theater audience.

This is aided by Austin Pendleton's naturalistic direction. He's not afraid to let the actors turn their backs to the camera once in a while, or move into the set's bathroom for a few minutes where they can only be partially seen in much of the house. This type of blocking is used judiciously; just often enough to give use the illusion that we're spying on real life. The illusion is aided by David Swayze's detailed set design for Frankie's studio apartment. It feels right in every detail except that the square footage is probably greater than the space she would have in real life!

Frankie and Johnny challenges audiences and performers to fill in the back story before Frankie and Johnny's first night in bed, on which the action of the play opens. McNally of course reveals it as the play progresses, but it takes a while for the viewer to discard the stereotypical situations we may suspect, based on other plots from other plays, TV shows and movies we've seen. This tryst isn't a simple one-night stand, nor is it the culmination of a lengthy courtship. While Frankie and Johnny have worked together and undoubtedly shown some attraction to each other before this date, it's clear they don't know each other very well and things have moved a little too far too fast.

Frankie's ready to get Johnny on his way home, but they have a little too strong of a connection for that to happen, and over the course of ninety minutes we see Frankie gradually open up to Johnny. It happens quickly for them, and perhaps even a bit fast for us. Pendleton keeps his cast moving at a sprinter's pace, and with the dense dialogue McNally's written, it's a lot of absorb the first time around, particularly since the two-act play is performed without an intermission. The pace makes sense, though. If Frankie and Johnny had a little more time to think about what they're saying and doing, they might have ended the evening sooner. We get the feeling they're on a roller coaster of mutual self discovery. Pendleton, Metcalf and Peyankov know exactly what they're doing and their well-calculated timing makes the most of every laugh and insight without ever seeming forced.

If Yasen Peyenkov's name makes you think of the comedian Yakov Smirnov, his performance may provide a similar association. The Bulgarian-born actor has enough of an eastern-European accent to make you wonder why it isn't referenced in the script, and his characterization does suggest that Johnny could see himself as a stand-up comedian. It works for the role, though, given Johnny's outward self-confidence. His accent would also not be out of character in New York, although you might wonder why he didn't lose it while growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania (the hometown he shares with Frankie). Peyenkov is as convincing showing Johnny's baggage and vulnerability as he is his bravado. Though his character initially appears less complex than Frankie, Peyenkov ultimately gives us a layered picture of the man.

Laurie Metcalf, one of Steppenwolf's many ensemble members to have success in TV and films (she was a regular on Roseanne for nine years), uses this experience to create an intimate and nuanced character. Her Frankie is strong, but not hard. She shows Frankie's pain in letting down her resistance to Johnny's efforts to establish emotional intimacy and create a character with whom we neither admire nor pity, but with whom we empathize.

Steppenwolf's Frankie and Johnny is an honest, unpretentious and funny production. While highly theatrical, it is so unselfconscious that we focus entirely on the characters. More productions like this could bring some of the mass popularity that TV enjoys into the theatre. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune plays Tuesdays through Sundays at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago through August 29, 2005. To purchase tickets, call the Steppenwolf box office at 312-335-3830. For more information visit www.steppenwolf.org.

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-- John Olson



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