"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"
Hartford Stage, Hartford
If ever proof were needed that Terrence McNally is a masterly playwright who brings this art form to its very heights, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is indeed proof. And now, the Hartford Stage production meets the challenge head on.
Under the sensitive, unerring direction of Jeremy B. Cohen, and with two dazzling performers, the production soars.
Since the play opens with a steamy sexual scene, as a couple grapples on the bed, it would be easy for a director to reach for a crass interpretation. But Cohen never lets this happen. Instead, he opens with a dumb show, positively spiritual in feeling, as the couple slowly undresses and moves to the bed.
Some viewers may take offense at the abundance of sex and nudity, but it all serves the play. Frankie and Johnny are a waitress and a short-order cook respectively, working in the same beanery, and now on their first date.The sexual attraction is there, but also the wariness and yearnings and obstructive past histories. Each brings his own baggage to the courtship (which begins, not before, but after copulation, as it often does in our times). Johnny represents the yearning (“You are too needy,” Frankie tells him, as she puts up the barriers).
Over the years McNally has ranged widely in his choice of characters and milieus, and this time around he finds poetry and truths in a blue-collar world. Johnny (who makes a mean Western omelet) also quotes Shakespeare to his lady love. And both respond (she in spite of herself) to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
And what a joy Portia and Robert Clohessy are in the title roles, as they make the sparks fly! Clohessy, especially, is the veritable personification of Johnny. Though one is prepared to use Al Pacino’s interpretation of Johnny in the movie version as the definitive portrayal, Pacino is soon forgotten as Clohessy takes command. Here is an actor who gives nuance to every emotion and depth to the character he explores. Clohessy is Johnny—and then some! And Portia matches him step by step as they spar and struggle and eventually fall into each other’s arms.
A word, also, about the design team and its work. Under Cohen’s careful direction, Jaymi Lee Smith keeps the lighting dim and subtle, so in-your-face nudity never prevails. And Takeshi Kata’s cluttered little set captures the tone perfectly for Frankie’s apartment.
In all, this is a superb interpretation of Terrence McNally’s fine play. For a first or a return visit to “Clair de Lune,” it is well worth the trip to Hartford.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 29, 2006