Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune has long been an actors’ showcase, with the main characters having been played by such storied veterans as Kathy Bates, F. Murray Abraham, Edie Falco, and Stanley Tucci.
Now, at New Edgecliff Theatre, Sara Mackie and Dylan Shelton are taking on the roles of the waitress and the short-order cook who’ve just had sex and now must determine what that means to them. Johnny says he loves Frankie, Frankie objects, and the banter begins. As the play progresses, the audience learns more about each of the main characters and what it means to be in love. Funny and poignant, Frankie and Johnny can charm an audience with its natural dialogue and unflinching look at romance expressed through its middle-aged characters.
Frankie and Johnny is the first show to be featured at New Edgecliff’s new home in Northside, Urban Artifact, the former St. Pius X Catholic Church. I attended the New Edgecliff Theatre Open House on Sept. 9.
Walking into the space was a surprise. The theatre’s new home is huge, raw, and very much what you would expect from a church—vaulted ceilings, a wooden floor, and a large round stained glass window. Tucked in one side of the enormous space was a raised platform with flats on three sides that creates a tiny studio apartment that fits a chair or two and a double bed. This is the unfinished set for Frankie and Johnny. Artistic Director Jim Stump was busily chatting with a cheerful crowd who had been treated with a special sneak peek of the show still in rehearsals. With a little over a week to go before opening night on Sept. 17, the impression is that the company has a lot of work ahead of them to get the space ready. But as big as the job seems, the ideas, determination, and the potential for the space seem even bigger.
Plans for the space include a power upgrade, shutters or curtains for the windows, and a divider creating a lobby and a flexible “black box” type space. There are also plans to open the space to other groups and events.
I cornered Elizabeth Harris, former Artistic Director and director of an upcoming show, The Shape of Things, and she seemed happy to have a home after being in limbo for three years. She believes it is a more central space than the old Columbia Tusculum spot. It has free and ample parking (on the night I was there, anyway) in a neighborhood that is a destination in itself. Northside is “young and hip,” and New Edgecliff has a season of “current” and “contemporary” shows that appeal to that demographic. The best part is a built-in hang-out right downstairs, Urban Artifact, with great beers and a chance to catch some amazing jazz performances after the show.
I was lucky enough to chat with the actors in Frankie and Johnny as they were enjoying beers downstairs after their preview performance. Sara and Dylan spoke earnestly and reverently of the “beautiful, amazing” script by Terrance McNally and seem to be having a great time working with the show’s director, Jared D. Doren, and the rest of the excellent crew. They described Mr. Doren as a “big romantic” and an “open and giving” director who allows freedom in what they called an “organic” process. They said he makes sure that the actors are as comfortable as possible as they delve into sensitive and sometimes scary and revealing material, all the while allowing them to “bring themselves” to the roles.
Sara says it is “kind of wonderful” to play a leading lady/ love interest as roles like this for women who may not be considered “conventional” leading ladies “don’t come along very often.” She says that the role of Frankie is fulfilling and that it “never feels like work.” Dylan also considers Johnny a dream role.
The play is a huge challenge as there are only two actors on stage for over an hour and a half. With these two sensitive and responsive actors, you can expect it will be a little bit different every night since the script is so rich and the characters are so complex. Sara and Dylan say that someone could come multiple times and see how the show lives and breathes as the audience—what Sara and Dylan call the “third character”—changes the dynamics of this intimate and very funny look into the lives of two very flawed and interesting characters. They claim that different actors would create an entirely different play, but I think New Edgecliff and Cincinnati are happy to keep these two, thank-you-very-much!