Frankie and Johnny work at a greasy spoon in New York. He’s a short-order cook and she's a waitress. When we first encounter them in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, they’re having passionate sex in the dark. Which leaves us, the audience, in the dark, too, listening to moans, groans, yelps, murmurs and ecstatic exclamations that go on for some time. No sooner has the action ceased and some light come up on stage than Johnny bursts into loud laughter and, under Frankie’s questioning gaze, relates a dumb, unfunny anecdote about having once farted while trying to impress a girl. We discover that despite all the exuberant vocalisms, these two are not exactly lovers yet — at least not emotionally. They’re on their first date and have just returned to Frankie’s grubby apartment after a disappointing movie and a bad dinner.
What follows is the getting-to-know-each-other dance that almost all couples engage in at the beginning, but here it’s particularly complicated. Johnny is a strange, twirling, gesticulating, over-the-top character. He’s already convinced himself that Frankie is his soulmate, and he wants to marry her and have children together. She likes him well enough to consider a second date, but for the moment she just wants him to leave so that she can have a glass of milk and watch television in peace. He argues and cajoles: She has to love him. She has to commit to it right now, this minute. If she doesn’t, their single opportunity for evading loneliness and existential despair will evaporate. “People are given one moment to connect,” he says.
“They don’t take it, it’s gone forever.” Poor Frankie doesn’t know if Johnny’s a stalker, a lunatic or just a lonely guy with whom she’s had great sex, and she’s far more guarded. Both of them are past their mid-forties, both are lonely, both have had difficult lives. Frankie’s response is self-protective. When Johnny backs off, she thaws a little. When he gets too exuberant, she snarls like a cornered animal.
There are some depths to Terrence McNally’s 1987 script, and some pleasures. The dialogue is clever and humanistic, seesawing between comedy and pathos. The action is daring and original; it’s good to see a play that assumes we’re all grownups. At one point, Johnny (Andrew Uhlenhopp) persuades Frankie to let him gaze at her naked vulva (actually, he says “pussy”) uninterrupted for several seconds. She reluctantly holds open her robe, while he lolls on the bed, his expression at once infantile and profoundly loving. As the title suggests, there’s a strong streak of romanticism here. Johnny quotes (or misquotes) Shakespeare. Both respond emotionally to music, in particular when a late-night disc jockey who’s been asked by Johnny to play the most beautiful piece in the world actually responds, coming up with Debussy’s "Clair de Lune." Kelly Uhlenhopp, who plays Frankie, adds further poetic dimension when she stands by the kitchen counter, using it as a ballet barre and moving through a few positions, quietly, gracefully and unself-consciously as Johnny prepares a Western omelet for her.
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But though the first act is entertaining, there really isn’t enough going on to sustain an entire evening, and partway through the second act — the couple is still together, still sorting out their feelings — things become static, with all the reminiscences about previous relationships and unhappy childhoods feeling a touch clichéd.
Fortunately, things are kept alive by the strong performances of the Uhlenhopps, a real-life couple, under the direction of Missy Moore. Andrew’s Johnny is every bit as irritating as the character is meant to be, jumping on furniture, waving his arms, flailing and stumbling, but persisting admirably in his crazed quest for love. We also see, periodically, the depths of this character’s loneliness. Frankie may be a downtrodden and defeated waitress — and that’s how Kelly Uhlenhopp plays her much of the time — but sometimes she seems positively regal, as when she offers Johnny a meatloaf sandwich after a fight, a gesture of near-reconciliation and forgiveness (she’s still not quite sure which). Few actors are as gifted as Kelly Uhlenhopp at simply doing nothing when required and managing to make stillness signify and even sing.
Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune, presented by Vintage Theatre Fridays through Sundays through September 4 at 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora. For more information, call 303-856-7830 or go to vintagetheatre.org.