"This talented duo reached Frankie and Johnny's emotional cores and got every joke along the way..."
"gets as many laughs today as when it premiered in 1987 -- thanks to director D.J. Sullivan, actors Daren Scott and Devlin, and the Vantage Theatre production"
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune
by Pat Launer, KPBS Theater Critic
In the heart and on the stage, love is a fickle, unpredictable business. At
three different theaters, folks of varied ages, customs and cultures battle
with their emotions and societal constraints. At Vantage Theatre, a very funny,
poignant production of "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune"
stars charismatic Daren Scott and Devlin as two lonely midlife lovers, past
their prime but surprisingly, not their romantic potential. D.J. Sullivan, respected
local acting coach, took a risk in casting a plus-sized woman in the often-sexy
role of Frankie. But the gamble pays off; Devlin is not only skeptical and vulnerable,
but also physically appealing. The antic Scott is irresistible. Terrence McNally's
witty, script, with its multiple mentions of a voracious appetite, make the
against-type portrayal thoroughly credible. It's a delightful production, teeming
with talent, infused with hope.
“Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Oh Lordy how they could love
Swore they'd be true to each other
Just as true as stars above. . . “
Or so goes one of the many versions of the American folk ballad thought to have originated when Frankie Baker gunned down her unfaithful lover, Al “Johnny” Britt in 1899 St. Louis, Missouri. He was wearing the $100 suit she bought him when she caught him with Nellie Bly or Alice Fry or some cat house kitten. Like I said there are many versions. Every few years, the tale has new life shot into it by another blues, country, jazz, rock, pop singer, including the King (in his title role movie). Then there was the 1930’s New Deal Project ballet. In 1987, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was a smash Off-Broadway hit featuring Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh, followed by the movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, and recently revised on Broadway starring Edie Falco/Stanley Tucci and now Rosie Perez/Joe Pantoliano.
McNally’s play isn’t the same story, you might say! But, I’m not so sure that it isn’t exactly the same story. McNally might just have written a good, solid, close-up of how the relationship began AND provided some insight into the ‘real story’ behind the legend.
In the darkened theatre, the noises from the convertible sofa/bed immediately inform us that, whoever it is under those covers, they are definitely sexually in sync! As the moonlight casts a soft glow into the dinghy, messy apartment, the sizeable blanketed hump crescendos and ebbs. A woman’s voice gives us the ‘all clear’ when she calls out for a cigarette – a habit that she’s long given up. Frankie (in a formidable performance by Devlin ) deftly wraps her nude body in a totally rumpled sheet and is first to rise. Johnny, on the other hand, in a tour de force performance by Daren Scott , gets the giggles and wants to “bask in the after-glow.” Thus starts the first round.
Johnny, like a bantam rooster, begins his quest to convince Frankie that they are made for each other: they must get married; gotta’ have kids; adopt! – his answer to her barrenness; my god – he even cooks! Isn’t he what every woman wants? Can she believe her good fortune? To every objection from the convincingly bewildered, frustrated, angry, then frightened Frankie, this supposed one-night stand oozes clever retorts displaying verbal skills he’s honed by reading Shakespeare and the Dictionary — books he keeps in his locker at the diner where he’s the new short-order cook and she the seasoned waitress. At first impressed with his efforts to “better himself,” Frankie recoils when he uses those same skills to intimidate and minimize her feelings. From Frankie’s point of view, the gal in Looking for Mr. Goodbar didn’t have it this bad. This guy won’t leave! She orders him out! He says no! She threatens to scream! He points out, in this neighborhood, who would listen?
Yet, he’s funny, charming and so-o-o-o sincere. Frankie’s defenses begin to collapse as the night wears on and their scarred pasts are revealed. The moonlight truly is a co-conspirator in creating an “us” from these two loners, as its soft rays peak through the New York City skyline into the one-room walk-up. Johnny uses Frankie’s phone to coerce a radio announcer into playing “the most beautiful music in the world” to enhance his likelihood of completely obliterating Frankie’s those defenses. The announcer ( Jack G. White ) chooses Debussy’s Clair de Lune and plays it twice with impeccable timing. Could Johnny be what Frankie needs in her desperately lonely life? Or, is her loneliness, the moonlight, Clair de Lune, and this man who has captured her in her own apartment and is saying all the right things conspiring to seduce her into a battering relationship like the one that left her barren. When Johnny prods Frankie's body with his feet, were these love-pokes precursors to something less loving in the future?
Outrageously funny, often poignantly touching, by turns crude and eloquent, the D.J. Sullivan -directed Frankie and Johnny in The Clair de Lune is also very, very chilling. Ms. Sullivan has restored integrity to McNally’s script through this multi-faceted production. The image of Frankie’s frightened cringing body at one point in the cat-and-mouse game does not leave me as the night wears on, and Johnny’s particular brand of romancing begins to bear fruit. My own resistance to Johnny is melted by his crazy charisma. I really liked this guy! In the next moment I, too, cringe at the thought of what might lie ahead for Frankie, whose vulnerability was evident in her face, her body, and her movement. Johnny displays early symptoms of a batterer – controlling, cajoling, coercing, intimidating, with no regard for Frankie’s feelings and wishes. All with an irresistible panache! Who’s to say that his m.o. might not also include being a cheater who ploys the same wares elsewhere? He’s so-o-o-o good and so-o-o-o practiced at pressuring for what he wants. Easy to anger when he feels his manhood has been slighted, Johnny turns Frankie’s resistance to him against her instincts of self-protection from his emotional and physical intrusion. Was the dark side of this play ever more effectively staged? Or, are we living with more savvy about the warning signs of an abusive relationship? Vulnerability and cockiness, touching in the beginning, could have lethal consequences. There are plenty of women in prison for killing their abusers. So, who’s to say that this Johnny is not a modern-day Al “Johnny Britt, and this Frankie is not a modern-day Frankie Baker? Ms. Baker, by the way, died in a mental institution after being acquitted for murdering her “Johnny”. He was a real charming cad, who lived off his women. Was there a faint echo of the parasite in Johnny's sizing up Frankie's apartment as larger than his and, thus, a better place to raise children? What lies ahead at the final curtain is what makes this play so timely and edgy.
Additional kudos must go to: Lighting Designer Sally Stockton . Did any one else succumb to the moonlight’s spell?; Sound Designer (?) which included Ms. Peggy Lee’s Fever as Act 1 opens, and Etta James’ At Last My Love Has Come Along at the closing curtain; Set Designer Michael McGee . The frig definitely made me think “icebox.” Great details, except I didn’t understand the overhead light stage left; and Costume Designer Sheila Rosen for Frankie’s oriental-icious dressing gown and the toe-hole in her right slipper – the symbolic chink in her protective armor?
Va ntage Theatre has provided yet another totally satisfying evening of exceptional theatre.
-- Carolyn Passeneau