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Spend an Intimate Evening with NET’s “Frankie and Johnny”

Review by Abby Rowald of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune: New Edgecliff Theatre

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, by Terrence McNally, is a great play. A two-hander with sparkling dialogue and characters that are complex in their simplicity, it is a joy to watch, especially when performed as wonderfully as it was on opening night by Sara Mackie and Dylan Shelton. These two actors were well-oiled machines, both physically and emotionally, as they executed the natural and organic blocking and the skillful pacing of their director, Jared D. Doren.

The play opens in an extremely dark room where the peak of lovemaking is occurring; we hear more than we see, and it is convincing. And though this play takes place in the hours after sex, we see more naked emotion than skin. The physical nudity is never gratuitous and is completely necessary to tell the story of the woman, Frankie, who feels exposed both physically and emotionally by this intense and besotted motor-mouth, Johnny, who keeps finding reasons not to leave despite her frequent urgings for him to get out.

We wonder about Johnny’s motives, and Frankie sometimes convinces us that he cannot possibly be as in love with her as he says he is. They are co-workers, she a waitress and he a cook in a diner in New York City, who noticed each other, went on one date, and ended up falling into bed together. He supposedly has instantly fallen for her, and she is not convinced, first that he is being honest, and second, that she loves him back. As the evening progresses, they keep stumbling upon amazing coincidences about their pasts (beyond their being named after the storied lovers of the famous song) that only cement Johnny’s love and make Frankie more suspicious. He is a smooth talker, and, as an audience member, you find yourself vacillating between wanting their pairing to be fate, and scolding yourself for being a gullible romantic (much like the DJ of the radio station that plays the “most beautiful music ever written” for the lovers to listen to as they attempt to repeat the magic of their first encounter).

The production was wisely and hastily moved to the CASA space at the Essex studios (2511 Essex Place, 45206) after issues at their new space at Urban Artifact made performance there impossible. The intimacy of the new space was perfect for this show; you were a fly on the wall of Frankie’s one-room apartment. The set was charming, and the atmosphere was perfect aside from the sweltering heat and a gigantic, rogue moth that would swoop and flutter its way from light to light. But, somehow the moth made the evening even more magical, and the heat seemed appropriate for Frankie’s un-air conditioned and stuffy New York City apartment. It never took my mind off of the fabulous performances, and put you right into the sweaty, impassioned tussle between the two lovers.

The performances in this production were as good as any I have seen at the Playhouse in the Park or bigger markets like Chicago, but the production value could have been a bit stronger. Theatres like New Edgecliff, if they are going to produce shows as great as this with the budget they deserve, must be supported.

Be sure to catch Frankie and Johnny during the remainder of its run: September 26 (8pm), September 27 (2pm), and September 30, October 1, 2, and 3 (8pm) at Essex Studios. It’s worth it.