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Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune is romantic comedy for people who think they don’t like romantic comedy. The characters of the short order cook with a repertoire of fancy chat-up lines, who has a dictionary and a copy of Shakespeare in his locker, and the no-bull-shit waitress trying to escape emotional involvement are neither sentimentalised nor patronised. Terrence McNally makes Johnnie’s intense passion and Frankie’s combination of practicality and sadness totally believable. Even in the under-rated film version (1991), in which McNally famously disapproved of the casting of Michelle Pfeiffer as an essentially ordinary and faded middle-aged woman, the actress permeated Frankie with sadness.
In this production at Sound, the excellent new studio venue off Leicester Square, Suzan Sylvester shows that Frankie has balls, too. One is angry on Frankie’s behalf when she recalls being told that she’d never make a good actress, because you need balls for that, and she just has a big mouth. Frankie and Johnnie are ordinary because, like most people, life’s circumstances haven’t been kind to them and not allowed them to be what they dreamed of. Like a lot of people whose integrity survives having crap thrown at them, they are actually extraordinary. Johnnie, who’s served a prison sentence for forgery, talks like a poet of the streets, an undiscovered literary voice in Brooklyn Heights. Anyone who’s lived or spent time in New York will instantly recognize Johnnie. He’s not a fanciful invention of McNally’s. There is poetry in the street culture among men from relatively poor or under-educated backgrounds, who love language and aren’t afraid to pay a woman a flowery compliment, in total contrast to their London counterparts. Shakespeare and Keats would not be out of place in a New York street, while in London you’d only find them in a bookshop or theatre. Johnnie relishes words and quotes from Shakespeare as much as Frankie loves food.
The most convincing quality of John Sharion’s Johnnie is an ambivalence in his intensity that suggests he may have been inside even before he admits it. Frankie suspects it early on, telling him that he made love as if he’d “been let out of prison”. She finds him too intense, and is put off, unnerved by his “sneaking up” on her, his close enquiry of her emotional life, which she wants to keep secret, his euphemisms for sex acts, his insistence that the two of them are meant to marry. McNally creates two charming portraits of opposites, showing, in Johnnie’s word, the “disparity” between them. Johnnie defines “grace” as the state of being blessed, she as a physical movement. She avoids the spiritual connections he wants her to make; she stays practical at all times; she wants simple sex, she wants dates, not high-flown talk and complicated involvement; she calls a blow job a blow job.
They connect, disconnect, quarrel, laugh, and reconnect in a repeated pattern. McNally’s first stage successes were with one-act plays, and Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune could easily stand without a second half. But McNally, Tony and Pulitzer award-winner, author of Masterclass (1995) and librettist of Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1990) and The Full Monty (2000) knows how to depict human nature honestly on stage and entertain with memorable one-liners. He’s not been afraid of handling controversial material, either: his play Corpus Christi (1998) portrays Jesus as a homosexual and got a fatwa issued against him by the Shari’ah court in Britain.
Frankie and Johnnie was first performed off-Broadway in 1987 and in the West End in 1989.
The psychology is sound, the humour robust, the tone tender without being soppy. The play celebrates sex and food, and making love in the moonlight, but it colours in the dark side of life, and never forgets the violence in the lovers’ own pasts and in the relationship of Frankie’s neighbours that she can see through a window.
Frankie’s apartment is recreated in scrupulous detail by David Farley. There’s an enviably well-appointed tiny kitchen, big bed, working sink and cooker for their sandwiches to be prepared on stage, a bathroom and water closet. The intimate nature of the venue and the realistic set invites a visceral and soul-baring experience that will shatter pretence, but instead we receive a very pleasant and competent production. James Phillips directs sensitively, but he does not take his actors into an area of emotional truth that makes us forget they are acting and he hasn’t fully succeeded in orchestrating them in the rhythm of the New York comedy, particularly at the opening when tone and pace needs to be set.
There’s more room for both relaxed and edgy playing than is allowed. Not powerfully intense or spontaneous enough to start, Sharion’s performance grows in assurance. Frankie is a trickier part, technically, in many ways; as she says, she’s not a spontaneous person, and her deliberate pragmatic approach could make her seem dull. Suzan Sylvester rightly aims to show that Frankie is fiery and warm-hearted as well as down to earth. Two-handers in these studio spaces put the actors under a microscope which shows up the slightest staginess in emotion.
In this space, most of the audience has to cross the stage in order to take their seats. I’ve got a childish, purist thing about respecting the fourth wall. I want to get into a picture, but not actually by putting my foot through it. Before the performance started, one audience member was over-excited by the proximity of the action and sat himself in Frankie’s armchair, cheerfully sipping his beer and recommending this indisputably fine new theatre venue to the rest of us. (One cavil: please could the programmes at Sound be more legible and include biographical details of the playwright). However, he proved he was a genuine theatre lover and not there to vandalise or steal the show, as he quietly took his seat when the lights went down.
Watching this production, you might want a deeper realization of the characters’ inner life and miss some of the tiny notes of everyday wistful longing which ring loudly of truth and comedy, but Suzan Sylvester and John Sharion achieve something priceless: they make you like Frankie and Johnnie; you grow increasingly fond of them, and become mesmerized by their gentle dance together at the climax. The play ends on the memorable image of them prosaically cleaning their teeth as they sit on the edge of bed listening to the “most beautiful music in the world”. A regrettably small but highly appreciative audience clapped loudly for the actors to come back for at least a second bow, which they were too modest to give.
C J Sheridan © 2005
Originally published on R&V 25-07-05
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