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REVIEW: BTF’s ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ a triumph for cast, director

This play is a major contender for most interesting show of the season. This is due in no small part to the company of players and the work of the director, Karen Allen who has brought to the fore every element of what makes this a wonderful play.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

By Terence McNally

Directed by Karen Allen

“…worried she was gonna let me go all the way.”

In the classic tale of great love, “Frankie and Johnny were lovers/Oh, Lordy, how they could love/Swore to be true to each other/True as the stars above/He was her man. . . .but he was doing her wrong.” In Terrence McNally’s 1987 play that called up the intensity of that earlier relationship, Frankie and Johnny are not quite the people of the song; they are instead people for whom intensity of feeling has quite a different quality. The folks on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA, are, in fact, an accident not waiting to happen but happening as we watch from the safety of our seats. If ever a couple was fated to be mismated it is McNally’s middle-aged lovers. So why, I am compelled to ask, do we root so hard for this love affair to be more than just a one-night stand?

Perhaps it is the people themselves and not the romantic situation in which they find themselves. Johnny’s relentless ardor ultimately gets him into ice water. Frankie’s determined self-protectiveness finally deteriorates before our eyes. Apart they are quarrelsome, and holding one another close they are impossible to tell apart. She becomes what he was and he turns into her worst nightmare. As the play unfolds so do their personal histories and they could, frankly, almost be brother and sister rather than a romantic duo.

This was McNally’s fourteenth produced play (his first came eighteen years earlier) and by the time he got to this one he had already begun to explore his homosexuality so the relentlessly heterosexual aspect of the play is a bit of a surprise. Seven years earlier he had produced a major hit, “The Ritz” set in a gay bathhouse, and his major series of gay plays was still to come. His opera plays would cement his relationship with the American theater-going public in the decade to come. This play, though, is a stand-alone look at how the common man loves and how the uncommon woman can be wooed. It has a poetry and beauty that is unparalleled until you get to John Patrick Shanley’s film, “Moonstruck” late in that same year, 1987. In that movie Shanley does what McNally did on stage. The parallels are amazing here and how the “light of the moon” affects people is what true love is probably all about.

Photo by Michelle McGrady
Darren Pettie and Angel Desai in ‘Frankie and Johnny in the clair de lune.’ Photo by Michelle McGrady

For this new production Karen Allen (movie star and entrepreneur) has directed two actors into and out of the webs each one weaves in the hope of trapping the other one. Frankie, a waitress whose only major love affair ended in physical pain and emotional terror, has taken into her bed the cook in the restaurant where she works, Johnny. Their passionate lovemaking has awakened all his latent feelings; he is the product of a broken home, a broken marriage and a broken relationship with his two kids. In the hours following their triumphant sex Frankie and Johnny examine not only their own problems but the focus of each other’s lives and come to grips with the terror of a future alone.

He is loquacious and she is vociferous. They spend a lot of time nearly naked in each other’s presence. She can barely to listen to his protestations of love and she cannot return them with anything approaching his ardor. He is prettier than Frankie and she is stronger than Johnny. The play is about their struggle to master their own feelings rather than combatting each other’s. Though Tony Simotes is credited in the program as fight coordinator there is very little fighting going on in this play, only battles for survival and armed combat (if you consider meatloaf a weapon) for compliance.

Angel Desai is a delicious Frankie, the waitress without a heart of gold. To a role created for Kathy Bates Desai brings a delicacy that could not have been borne by the role’s originator. Desai’s Frankie is a strong woman, capable of living out a destiny that doesn’t include a man. Her loving nature is well hidden behind her verbal style and Frankie’s chill bland egg whites become a gradually warmed saucepan of hot chile sauce. She is wonderful as she makes the many minor transitions from one end of her character’s color spectrum to the other. In this she is aided by the beautiful work of lighting designer Shawn E. Boyle. His moonlight and later his sunlight are exquisite as befits a growing love affair.

Johnny is given wonderful character heart by Darren Pettie. The actor finds the man in the cook and the cook in the man. He goes back and forth between pompous quoter of Shakespeare to musically needy lover who requires personal inspiration to perform. Johnny’s bravado is never faked but the basis for it falls away from him for a while; even so he keeps putting a good face on his view of the future. Pettie is atrociously heartwarming, attractive and repulsive at the same moment. He makes us want to slap him and when Frankie finally does that we regret it for her. This is a unique character and Pettie plays every element of his elaborate psyche so well that there are times when we must reach out and take from him what is closest to ourselves.

Karen Allen’s insightful direction has brought to the fore every element of what makes this a wonderful play. She has found within the writing all that she and her cast need to create a breathing, living entity rather than just a play. McNally and Allen together have gone back to the iron forge and the anvil and created a pure, metallic creation that withstands even the language of a period of time not our own any longer. In this production, set in 1987, these people are here for us in the now, not the then, and we can respond to them and their situation on a one-to-one basis in our own way.

The production values are sound and so is the sound design work of Scott Killian. Music plays a strong impulse building role in this play (it is McNally, after all) and Bach, Debussy and Wagner each have their spotlight in the moonlight here.

I was not looking forward to this play at the start of the season but it is a major contender for most interesting show of the season. This is due in no small part to the company of players and the work of the director. Kudos to everyone involved, including an astute audience for taking so much nudity and violence and language to heart in such a generous way. I hope the rest of the run gets the same. This production deserves that much.

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Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune plays on the mainstage of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus through August 22. For information and tickets consult the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at 413-997-4444, or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.

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