Frankie is a waitress at a diner and Johnny the short-order cook there, and as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opens at Miners Alley, they’re in her shabby Hell’s Kitchen apartment having a terrific time in bed together; their moans, sighs, cries and exclamations drift through the on-stage darkness toward the audience. Then the lights come on — not all at once, but a little at a time, as Frankie switches on lamps around the place. The two start to emerge from their postcoital haze, contemplate each other and, since this has been their first-ever date, try to figure out just what they may have started. Johnny’s would-be funny anecdote about a huge fart doesn’t help. And here begins the wary work of confession and withholding, advance and retreat, attraction and rejection that will either sputter into nothingness or end in love.
Frankie and Johnny is a two-person play written in 1982 by multi-award winner Terrence McNally. It’s one of those tough-tender pieces that speaks directly to the viewer’s heart without ever descending into cliché or sentimentality. Though the protagonists have led difficult, on-the-edge lives — Johnny was once in prison for forgery, Frankie suffered an abusive relationship that damaged her ability to trust anyone — poetry periodically peeps through the realistic dialogue. Johnny is drawn to Shakespeare, though he doesn’t entirely understand the meaning of the language. Frankie, who’s not usually a fan of classical music, still notes the grace and elegance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which she’s heard on the radio. And the radio disc jockey, having expressed skepticism about a request placed by Johnny to hear “the most beautiful music ever written,” ultimately blesses the couple’s evening with Debussy’s gorgeous "Clair de Lune." There’s something quite wonderful, too, about the fact that Frankie and Johnny feed each other, though not until they’ve done a fair amount of bickering about food. She persuades him to try a turkey meatloaf sandwich and they disagree about the addition of mayonnaise and ketchup. Later, after she’s complained of hunger and nagged him to make her a Western omelet, Johnny finally agrees, and we see his cookery skills at work as he expertly chops and dices.
Warren Sherrill directs with his usual insight and intelligence, and the evening’s rhythms are spot-on. The casting is nothing less than brilliant. The thing about Johnny, who simply refuses to leave despite Frankie’s attempts to get him out of her apartment so that she can settle down with her television and some ice cream, is that you can see him either as a pure-hearted idealist or something a lot creepier. He declares himself in love with Frankie, who’s not averse to a second date but at the moment needs some privacy. He wants to have children with her. He explains passionately that we’re only given one chance to seize on life’s most important moments — and this is theirs. William Hahn, tall, skinny and sometimes wildly gesticulating, could easily be seen as a stalker, a threat to Jessica Robblee’s slight and luminescent Frankie. But Hahn makes him so passionately and nakedly human, so much his own unique and eccentric self, that you can’t help rooting for him. Frankie has been leading a fairly isolated life, holed up in her grubby place, watching the activities of her neighbors through the windows: in one apartment, an old couple who never seem to speak to each other, in another, a man who regularly beats his wife into the ground — though when Frankie offers help, the woman claims not to know what she’s talking about. Robblee makes the character carefully armored, while still allowing occasional moments of painful revelation to slip through.
The play’s ending is ambiguous, but it offers a strong sense of possibility. You leave the theater seriously hoping Frankie and Johnny will navigate the difficult shoals of their relationship into a peaceful harbor, aided by Debussy and the silver light of the moon.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through March 1, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.