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A short order cook and a waitress are making love at the start of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and it’s not a pretty sight. The couple is writhing naked on a sofa bed as their apartment whirls into view, and even in the half-light filtering through a streaked windowpane, it’s clear they’re nothing like the svelte, young folks who populate most theatrical romances.
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As we’ll soon discover, these lumpen 40-somethings are not well-spoken, either, though playwright Terrence McNally has supplied them with plenty of blunt quips and personalities different enough to prompt arguments. Johnny’s amused by everything from farts to corgies; Frankie’s more or less humorless. He’s obsessed with her breasts and crotch; she’s got a thing about food. At one point, with his nose buried between her legs, all she can think to talk about is toast.
In a romantic comedy, all of that is a little odd, and in 1987, when Frankie and Johnny put McNally on the theatrical map after he’d spent a quarter-century writing minor dramatic successes (Next, The Ritz), and major musical flops (The Rink, Here’s Where I Belong), it was so odd that the oddness was pretty much the point. With big-boned Kathy Bates playing Frankie to Kenneth Welsh’s balding Johnny, the original off-Broadway production prompted much rumination on the physical ordinariness of its protagonists and how that didn’t seem to keep their dreams from echoing those of all the beautiful people who fill TV and movie screens, providing impossible standards for the rest of the world to live up to.
That, of course, was before TV’s Roseanne made ordinariness itself ordinary. Still, pretty is as fashionable as ever, and even if Kate Buddeke’s nasal, bedraggled, frowsy Frankie could pull herself together, she’d be hardly the ravishing creature Vito D’Ambrosio’s rumpled, flabby Johnny kept claiming she was as he talked his way into her bed. He’s now overstating even more in a bald attempt to make her fall in love with him, and while she didn’t mind the roll in the hay, she’s not buying. His relentless compliments are making her so crazy (“This is worse than Looking for Mr. Goodbar!”) that they’re actually shaking her confidence rather than boosting it. Sentiment will ultimately reign—the play is no more outré than Mary, Mary—but these two won’t connect without a comically fierce struggle.
If David Muse’s staging doesn’t give much shape to their courtship—arguments ebb and flow without ever quite developing a dramatic arc—the director does keep things persuasively claustrophobic, helped by the shabby clutter of Neil Patel’s revolving studio apartment, and the perpetual urban twilight of Nancy Schertler’s lighting. And the performers are pretty splendid in their down-to-earthiness, finding more than a few snatches of grace in the deliberately messy locutions with which McNally gives the evening both laughs and a sort of strangled eloquence.