Frankie and Johnny are losers.
I know the song says "sweethearts." But in Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, currently being produced by the new Winding Road Theater Ensemble, these two are more losers than lovers.
Oh, they try. When first we meet them, they are in the throes of what sounds like very satisfying sexual intercourse. (This occurs in a blackout, so we only hear them.) When the lights do brighten, Frankie and Johnny (the joke is not lost on them) begin an evening's journey to reveal who they are to each other, and to us.
They are co-workers in a diner: He's a cook; she's a waitress. They've known each other only briefly, and this is their first date. Johnny is loquacious, cheerful and not ambivalent about his desire to marry Frankie and raise a family.
Frankie, quite understandably, is wary of his enthusiasm and single-mindedness. She doesn't know what to make of him. Even if he's not quite a wacko, his overbearing and careless optimism is off-putting. Not only do they not know each other well enough for him to be talking about such things; Frankie seems deeply mistrustful that this kind of stuff is even possible for them, or anybody else. The scenario he describes rings about as true as the promises of snake-oil peddlers.
But Johnny persists, and their evening becomes an odd courtship dance of pursuit, contact and retreat.
Under Lesley Abrams' direction, Terry Erbe as Johnny and Amy Erbe as Frankie (they are real-life husband and wife) give a spirited rendering of McNally's play. The script is strong enough, but it relies on captivating characterizations by the actors and excellent guidance by a director to make it work. Unfortunately, we don't have that in all the right proportions here.
The script is certainly open to interpretation, and Abrams and company opt for a light touch, treating it as a simple romantic comedy with quirky characters. It works well enough on this level, but it fails to integrate a dimension of McNally's work which lifts it above a simple love story to a thoughtful exploration of the idea of love, our need for it and our fear of it.
Terry Erbe gives us an endearing and enthusiastic Johnny. He is funny, smart and unwavering in his pursuit of Frankie, but he seems much more industrious, open and charming than McNally intended. It's hard to believe someone hasn't snatched him up already. This Johnny lacks an edge that explains why, here in his mid-40s, he is a short-order cook in a diner, a misfit who has been unsuccessful in love, has been incarcerated and displays such neediness in his hasty attachment to Frankie. He's just not obnoxious enough—and he needs to be.
Meanwhile, Frankie is terrified. She's been hurt and seems resigned to a life bereft of real intimacy. She wishes at one point that Johnny would just leave so she could watch TV and eat ice cream. Amy Erbe here is alternately so shut down or so harsh that we wonder what Johnny sees in her Frankie to begin with. She can't seem to commit to a through-line for the character, and this lack of definition gets in the way of our making sense of—or really caring about—what's at stake. Her Frankie is as vague as Terry Erbe's Johnny is single-minded.
When the play was first produced in 1987, part of the buzz it caused was due to its extensive use of nudity, which would, of course, evoke a sense of rawness and intimacy as these characters reveal themselves to each other and to us. Abrams has chosen to keep her actors clothed, which keeps with her light approach to the story.
But when you consider that Kathy Bates played Frankie in the original New York production, you get a hint of the unusual approach McNally was taking with his love story. These folks were not intended to be beautiful people—physically or otherwise—and McNally's story is not simply a sweet valentine.
Winding Road has set up shop for this production at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, a far-from-ideal theater venue. But they make it work as well as possible, placing both the set and the audience on the small stage. We are right there in Frankie's studio apartment, and this intimacy serves the play well.
NcNally certainly employs a light touch as he writes about these unlikely lovers. But he also presents depths to be plumbed, which for the most part are ignored in this production.
Still, there is humor and hope celebrated here, and that's never a bad thing.