Suddenly it's 1987 again. That's the year in which the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Into the Woods and Terrence McNally's off-Broadway comedy Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opened just a week apart. Now, eighteen years later, both fairy tales are on view at area theaters.
Two fairy tales? Indeed. Into the Woods focuses on the Baker and his Wife; Frankie and Johnny spins the unlikely tale of the Short-Order Cook and the Waitress.
Frankie is a blame-taker. She's been so disappointed, betrayed and generally beaten down by life that she instinctively replies "I'm sorry" to every situation, even those not of her own making. Johnny is a Shakespeare-spouting short-order cook who has begun to work at the greasy spoon where Frankie waits tables. She's attracted to his "sexy wrists." Now, at the end of an otherwise forgettable first date, they've made love in Frankie's bleak one-room apartment.
Here's the catch: Johnny doesn't think this is the end of anything. On the contrary, he wants this evening to be the beginning of their life together. Frankie performed in Brigadoon in high school; Johnny has stumbled upon Brigadoon for real. He's convinced that women like Frankie only come along once every century or so, and he's not about to let this first date/last chance fade away into the foggy mists of her insecurity. Johnny knows that they are each other's guardian angel -- but how to persuade Frankie? That's the rub, and the gist of the fairy tale.
It's always fascinating to see how a dramatist sustains just two characters for a full evening. McNally does lots of savvy things. For starters -- and this is a lesson all playwrights should take note of -- he waits a full 25 minutes before introducing his first line of exposition. That's right: For nearly one-third of the play, the characters exist in the present moment. Not until the viewer is totally immersed in the unfolding plot does McNally begin to fill in Frankie and Johnny's back-stories -- at which point all that background info slides down as smoothly as Johnny's eggs special. Then McNally relies on specificity to create two distinct individuals. Johnny is a Jack Nicholson wannabe in love with both the sound of his own voice and the range of his acquired vocabulary. Frankie likes to eat after making love -- preferably alone. He likes to watch Prizzi's Honor; she's read Looking for Mr. Goodbar. He is impetuous; she fears spontaneity.
With so much to bite into, it's no surprise that actors love to play these roles, or even that productions are often staged by directors with acting experience. So it is here. Yet director Wayne Solomon seems content to allow his two actors to paint with primary colors rather than to dabble with various shadings. As Frankie, Pamela Reckamp is mostly cynical; John Pierson's Johnny is mostly ingratiating. If we miss glimpses into some of her inner yearnings, we also don't see his darker, rougher edges. But near the end of Act One, Johnny places a phone call to a local radio station. In some productions the phone conversation calls attention to itself as a set piece. Yet here it is the high point of the evening. Pierson delivers the speech with eloquent urgency and plaintive charm. An involuntary hush envelops the audience, as if everyone's afraid to so much as swallow.
All too soon Frankie and Johnny return to bed and something unfortunate intrudes upon the action: intermission. McNally wrote this duet on intimacy as a two-act play, but he shouldn't have. (Some recent revivals have omitted the intermission, to great effect.) By compelling the actors to begin Act Two essentially where they were at the top of Act One, the intermission merely points up the repetitious nature of the writing in the second act.
When Frankie and Johnny opened in 1987, one wag described it as "Talley's Folly with nudity." It's easy to see why. Both plays are two-character romances featuring loquacious males in pursuit of frightened, standoffish women who are unable to bear children. And both plays occur at night, when the darkness impels lonely men to take desperate measures. But only Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune calls in the extra guns from Claude Debussy and sends its audience home under the spell of delicate music for moonlight.