Although it opened on Broadway in 1987, Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was originally written in 1982. The title and the date when it was written speak volumes. Surprisingly, it is incredibly dated, and although the author struggles to give it an optimistic ending, there has been too much mainstreaming of 12-step concepts in the intervening 30 plus years as well as knowledge about the characteristics of narcissism for me to overlook the potentially destructive aspects inherent in the budding relationship of a middle aged waitress and a middle-aged cook depicted in two-person play.
Frankie and Johnny is a popular old American folk song , dating from the 19th century performed by many singers from Lead Belly to Elvis Presley and most famously by Mae West. The lyrics are about a woman, named Frankie, who kills her lover Johnny because he cheated on her. In many versions, Frankie ends up being executed. So the author sets up the audience for what sounds like a highly destructive relationship.
Clair de Lune ( moonlight in French) is a traditional French lullaby from the 18th century which Claude Debussy, a late 19th Century French composer turned into one of the most beautiful and romantic pieces of music in the world. Moonlight suggests insanity as well as falling in love. The childish lyrics of the lullaby are actually an extended double entendre for dormant sexuality being re-kindled.
As the play opens, having met six weeks earlier at the restaurant where they both work, Frankie, a waitress and Johnny, a short-order cook, are just consummating their first date, with great success. Unfortunately there is a post-coital disconnect in terms of expectations and role reversals. At 3 am, Frankie, the failed actress turned -waitress, wants her place to herself, so she can watch TV and eat ice cream. Johnny, wants intimacy and a commitment.
For two hours, with an intermission, the two discuss her well-founded fear of intimacy, his disappointments and need for connection. However, in trying to portray himself as “good husband material” the character of Johnny uses some underhanded aggressive manipulative tactics which in 1982 were part of the psycho-babble culture of courtship, but nowadays would be judged as: taking her personal inventory at worst and at best: as using “you” statements.
Through the humorous dialogue, he unintentionally reveals himself to be a narcissist. One of the characteristics of a narcissist is that it is very important for the narcissist that his friends accept his judgments of them. Johnny certainly tells Frankie what is wrong with her, what her issues are and how these faults prevent her from committing to him. In short, his needs are of paramount important. He is so selfish that he does not even consider that she may need time and patience before she commits.
Obviously it was a good theatrical device to have what would take place, in real life, over several months, take place in one night. However, I left the theatre feeling very skeptical about the success of the relationship, and raging feminism reared its head.
The director, Eric Bishoff highlighted the flaws in the script, especially in Act I, which could have been funny, but Greg LoProto, as Johnny, delivered his lines aggressively with too much anger, and the incredible humor embedded in the script fell flat. Neither actor demonstrated any comedic skill.
In choosing an unidentifiable garbled vaguely New York working-class accent for a character from Allentown, Pennsylvania, certainly did not help Lucy Pearce, who played Frankie. Vocally, she had a lot of problems; for most of the play she spoke above her optimal pitch, which rendered her lines expressionless.
Towards the end of Act II, both actors seemed to perk up, and the monologue which LoProto delivered about his ex-wife and his kids was moving.
Two-person plays are extremely demanding for actors, especially vocally, comedy is not easy, perhaps with a better director, this flawed script could have seemed less flawed, but the performance I saw had very little to recommend it.
Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune. Ballard Underground. Local Jewell Productions. 2220 NW Market St, Seattle, WA 98107 (Ballard) Fridays at &:30, Sat. at 2pm and 7:30. til Oct. 17. Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2068203