Arena Stage Offers a Glowing 'Frankie and Johnny'
"You find something beautiful, you go for it," insists Johnny, the more emotionally demonstrative title character of Terrence McNally's funny and lyrical 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Having recently made love to Frankie, Johnny has decided to call the local radio station to discover the name of the classical piece that accompanied their first time together (it's Bach's "Goldberg Variations"). He's also referring to their relationship - Frankie has expected a one-night-stand with the option for renewal. Johnny wants nothing less than to give Frankie the heavens.
Johnny's night-long attempt to connect with Frankie on a more than physical level ultimately ends in the moonlight, which, as Frankie points out, turns one into a romantic or a werewolf. In Arena Stage's vivid production - which is distinguished by the sensitive direction of David Muse and the passionate performances of Kate Buddeke and Vito D'Ambrosio- romance wins out over lycanthropy...but not without a good deal of pain and soul-searching along the way. In Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, genuine human connection is as incomparably beautiful and tenuous as the rays of the moon. It can also be both as simple as touching someone's hand and as difficult as crossing a continent.
As the play opens, Neil Patel's unit set - an attractively detailed mixture of coziness and mild squalor - turns to reveal the couple in darkened flagrante delicto within Frankie's Hell's Kitchen apartment. A waitress and a newly-hired cook at the same diner, both in their early-to-mid-forties, the two were immediately drawn to one another. Yet as the night progresses, the cynical, practical Frankie is increasingly alarmed by Johnny's wildly poetic declarations - and by the claim that he is in love with her. The two view romance very differently. For Frankie, who has been hurt by more than a few men in the past, it's all or nothing: "Connecting is when the other person isn't there and you could die thinking about them." Johnny, however, is content to talk to and laugh with Frankie - even to just watch her brush her hair (an action whose beauty he compares to the Grand Canyon).
As played by D'Ambrosio, it's not entirely surprising that Johnny is able to overcome some of Frankie's romantic reservations. Although the character certainly has obnoxious moments, D'Ambrosio covers them with both bursts of boyish exuberance and surges of ardent charm. In the play, which wisely avoids the trap of condescension towards its unglamorous characters, Johnny is a working-class poet who keeps a volume of Shakespeare in his locker. At one point, he quotes Twelfth Night "If music be the food of love, play on." It's only appropriate that Johnny wins Frankie's trust through music "Goldberg Variations" is followed by Debussy's "Clair de Lune," which is played after Johnny requests that the classical radio station play the most beautiful piece of music ever written.
Buddeke's Frankie is a complex portrait of a woman gradually letting go of her preconceptions and fears about becoming too close to another person. Although she still seems to be exploring the vulnerable side of her character, the raspy-voiced Buddeke (who is familiar to Broadway theatergoers for her turn as Mazeppa in the last Gypsy revival) compellingly channels the toughness, wry humor, anger and resilience that characterize Frankie. Although Frankie feels some measure of regret at having never pursued a career as an actress, she recalls with pride her performance as Fiona in her high school production of Brigadoon - and tenderly hums "Almost Like Being in Love" while dancing cheek to cheek with Johnny.
David Muse's direction is tonally assured, and he suavely navigates the play's flows from brittle urban romantic comedy into pathos and intimacy. However, the two-and-a-half production feels a bit overlong and could benefit from more Johnny-esque spontaneity at times. When Frankie barks like a wild dog before diving into bed with Johnny for a second time, it's a completely unexpected moment - and one of the most hilarious and character-revealing bits of the evening.
Nancy Schertler's lovely lighting effects are extremely attuned to Frankie and Johnny's rocky emotional journey into the dawn; they also keep the play's famed nude opening sequence from becoming prurient. As Frankie and Johnny spend the play either naked, under the covers, or in nightclothes, T. Tyler Stumpf's costumes are effectively minimal.
Of course, McNally's play is a bit of a fairy tale. As passionate and devoted as Johnny is, he wins Frankie the way a wrecking ball does a particularly resistant building. In real life, Frankie might have just called the cops on her unflappable Romeo. Yet who can't relate to Frankie's fear of opening herself to more heartache, or to Johnny's need to overcome that fear and forge a lasting human connection? Who can completely resist the most beautiful music in the world?
Visit www.arenastage.org for tickets and more information on Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Photos by Scott Suchman