An Unsatisfying Relationship

Frankie and Johnnie were lovers
Lordy oh how they did love
They swore to be true to each other
Just as true as the stars above
He was her man but he’s doing her wrong

Thanks to this famous song, the duo of Frankie and Johnny are in the ranks of famous lovers. I’ve been thinking about this since last night, when we saw the first play in the REP East 2001 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”. This play focuses on a waitress named Frankie and a short-order cook named Johnny—two lonely, middle-aged people whose first date ends with them tumbling into bed. Johnny is certain he has found his soul mate in Frankie. She, on the other hand, is far more cautious and disinclined to jump to conclusions. As the night unfolds, they slowly begin to reveal themselves to each other as they take tentative steps towards the possible start of a new relationship.

That’s actually the best description of the entire plot, which is part of the problem with this play. Terrence McNally has written a two-character study, permitting us to learn about the two characters in depth, but not really bringing them to any satisfying conclusion or demonstrating any significant growth in the two characters. The most growth is seen in Frankie, who initially wanted an overnight fling with a coworker who left before dawn, but who (seemingly) became open to the notion of the relationship. Johnny is harder to piece together: you don’t know if he was there for the sex, if he really was in love, or if he was just desparate to have a relationship again. I couldn’t see growth in his character in the play.

Ultimately, this piece left me unsatisfied. I never could fathom a reason to care about these people, and I never got to the point where I cared what happened next to them. I lay the fault on this upon the writer, which is more surprising given some of Terrance McNalley’s other creations, such as “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “Ragtime”, “The Full Monty”, “The Rink”, or “Man of No Importance”. But that happens sometimes with theatre: what doesn’t touch one person may affect another deeply. So I do encourage you to see the story and share your experiences. Perhaps you have an insight on the story that I have missed. I did reread the review in the Santa Clarita paper: it noted the quality of the acting, and indicated that he did grow to care about the people, even through the “filibuster of dialogue and fits and starts and sex and cooking and burns and sex and ripping off of emotional scabs”. So this really may be a YMMV story.

The REP production of “Frankie and Johnny” was reasonably good, although I think Jeff Alan-Lee, who played Johnny, was off last night, for he had numerous seeming line-misstarts and hesitations. Of course, that could also have been how he was playing the character, for Alan-Lee’s Johnny came off as slightly Aspergers and ADHD, drifting from subject to “oh squirrel” and seemingly not understanding how to interact with people and how relationships work. I liked Sasha Carrera better: her Frankie came off as vulnerable, wanting a relationship but scared of one, and unsure if Johnny was sincere or a psycho… or both. She was fun to watch.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production was directed by David Colwell, who did a good job in working with his actors to portray the neuroses of these two people, and for skillfully moving them so as not to expose something not normally exposed in Santa Clarita (for the two actors start the play naked—yes, this is for mature audiences).

The production team was mostly REP regulars, who did their usual excellent job: Steven “Nanook” Burkholder on sound, Tim Christianson on lights, and Jeff Hyde on sets. Vicki Lightner was stage manager. “Frankie and Johnny” was produced by Ovington Michael Owston and Mikee Schwinn.

I’m not sure this was the best opening production for the season—it really belonged as part of the REP’s “81 Series” for more mature audiences. But I also understand it was a last minute replacement for “Moonlight and Magnolias”, which had to be pulled due to a conflicting production at the Colony Theatre that was licensed first. I am looking forward to the remainder of the REP season: “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Cabaret”, “Jewtopia”, “Doubt”, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, and “The Graduate”.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” continues at REP East until February 19, 2011. Tickets are available via the REP Box Office; discount tickets may be available via Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Tonight brings the first 2011 production for The Pasadena Playhouse, “Dangerous Beauty”. It will be interesting to see what the Playhouse does with this new period musical. Next weekend also brings two shows: “The Marvelous Wonderettes at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12, and “Adding Machine: The Musical at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble on February 13. The third weekend of February is another with two shows: “Rock of Ages at The Pantages Theatre on February 19, and “33 Variations at the Ahmanson Theatre for February 20. February closes with “Moonlight and Magnolias” at The Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also busy. It begins with a Noel Paul Stookey concert at McCabes on March 4. March 5 is the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at TBH. The first two weekends of March are also the Spring Musical, “Evita”, at Van Nuys High School; we’re likely going on Saturday, March 12. Sunday, March 13 is “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Blank Theatre. The weekend of March 19 is currently open, but that probably won’t last for long. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire, “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre, and (pending ticketing) Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center.