A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Frankie and Johnny In the Clair de Lune
By Elyse Sommer
Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham who realistically looked like McNally's middle aged losers turned this two-hander into an Off-Broadway hit. Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer turned out to be too attractive to make the screen version as successful, though McNally's smart dialogue and the skills of the actors didn't make it a bomb. Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci were more suitably cast in the 2002 Broadway revival.
While Angel Desai is neither as shlumpy looking as Bates or as drop-dead gorgeous as Pfeiffer, her previous roles didn't seem as just right as those previous Frankies. As for Pettie, he's the right age, but he struck me as too handsome and hunk-y to make this worth seeing yet another time.
I'm therefore happy to report, that Pettie is an absolutely riveting Johnny, managing to be equal parts sexy, obnoxiously macho, and enderingly needy. And Desai, while warming up to her part a bit more slowly, ends up making us root for her and Johnny's embrace in the moonlight can indeed be seen as a happily ever after ending.
Even if the movie had been a huge hit, the intimacy of a two-character, single set stage version — not to mention the economy of it— has given the play the "legs" to carry it to prestige summer theaters like the one in Stockbridge and attract well-credentialed actors like Pettie and Desai and directors like Karen Allen.
In case you're new to the play, Allen has not sanitized the X-rated opening. The opening cloaks John McDermott's walk-up studio in what in 1987 was still known as Hell's Kitchen in darkness leaving you to picture your own visual accompaniment to the orgasmic moans coming from the direction of the opened sleep sofa. And that sexually charged opening is not an isolated moment. However, like all McNally's plays, Frankie and Johnny is about people's deepest feelings more than sexual acrobatics.
McNally hallmarks are all over the place, to be specific: Dialogue that's crisp and literate, funny and poignant. Lines like "I'm sick of living this way--like we're all going to die from each other (sad to say still timely as it was on the brink of the AIDS epidemic in 1987). Also integral to the narrative is music. To put sound to the play's title there's Debussy's lovely score as well as bits of Wagner and Bach's Goldberg Variations which prompt's Frankie who's more familiar with the Beatles than Bach to say "I guess Bach was Jewish."
Familiar as I was with the trajectory of the play from steamy sex to Frankie and Johnny companionably brushing their teeth — another kind of intimacy after they've gone through his impulsive proposal and her wanting him to leave her to her depressing solitary life. Since they met in the restaurant where she is a waitress and he a short-order cook, count on a meat loaf sandwich and Western omelet to help him persuade her to change her mind.
This production persuaded this writer to switch from feeling rather ho-hum about watching McNally's contrived yet artful romance yet again. Highly recommended, whether you've seen it before or not. That's even if you don't catch it on a night a full moon's out as I did