Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Also see Susan's review of Drama Under the Influence
The one major problem with this production of Terrence McNally's 1987 play comes from a design flaw at the very beginning. Neil Patel's scenic design in the intimate Kreeger Theatre includes both the interior of Frankie's New York City apartment and her exterior hall and front door; the set is on a turntable, beginning with the exterior view and revolving to reveal the interior. The exterior is, simply, unattractive and blah, with a waffle-like pattern on the wall, and suggesting a far newer and more upscale apartment building than a struggling diner waitress could afford. It's also the first thing the audience sees, which is off-putting.
The play is about how love isn't just for people who look like movie stars, and the difficulty of learning to trust another person. It begins with Frankie (Buddeke) and Johnny (D'Ambrosio), a short-order cook she works with, enthusiastically participating in sex after their first date and sharing conversation afterward. But, when Frankie asks Johnny to leave, he refuses, having decided that she's a good thing and he's ready to make a commitment to her – regardless of what she may want. The rest of the play is their subtle process of negotiation, underscored by classical music. ("Clair de Lune" refers to the piano piece by Claude Debussy that a radio announcer considers "the most beautiful music ever written," as well as to the actual moonlight outside Frankie's window.)
Muse has choreographed the interactions between the actors delicately, underscoring the fact that both Frankie and Johnny have painful experiences in their pasts. Buddeke more openly conveys the sadness and wariness of her character, a woman who no longer expects much from her relationships with men, and who is determined to learn from her mistakes. D'Ambrosio's character has a tougher outer shell, so his vulnerability is less visible most of the time.
Once Patel's set shifts away from the blank wall, it's beautifully detailed with its small walk-in closet and narrow kitchen, and the lighted windows of neighboring buildings shining like eyes in the night. Nancy Schertler's lighting and T. Tyler Stumph's costumes never call attention to themselves.