Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is a 1987 romantic dramedy by American playwright Terrence McNally, though most people are better acquainted with the 1991 film adaptation starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.
We meet Frankie (a waitress) and Johnny (a short order cook) at the orgasmic climax of their first date. The play centres around the fact that Frankie and Johnny don’t really see eye-to-eye on their future together once the lights go on. They find themselves on opposite sides of the commitment spectrum: Johnny thinks he’s found his soulmate, while Frankie is a bit more cynical about love and life and merely wants Johnny to leave so that she can eat her post-sex sandwich in peace. So tension, passion, anger, and generally heightened emotions are what you would expect from this theatre experience.
Although line delivery is mostly solid, the required chemistry between Shannyn Fourie (Frankie) and Alistair Moulton Black (Johnny), directed by Tamryn Speirs, is sadly just not strong enough. The actors appear to be in two different plays, with Moulton Black’s portrayal of Johnny being reminiscent of Tony Danza’s character in Who’s The Boss?, rather making you wonder when he’s going to shout ‘Angela!’ across the stage. With this interpretation, Johnny’s aggressive undertone (that’s supposed to stand in juxtaposition to Frankie’s defensive nature) is lost.
Frankie and Johnny calls for two equally strong performers that adopt the same rhythm and pace, as this would allow the manner in which they hit their individual accent points to ensure a cohesive build-up to the play's ultimate intimate revelation. In fact, it was rumoured that the 80s off-Broadway staging of this play did not sit well with audiences because Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Frankie was too strong for her Johnny. The portrayal of one character must undoubtedly equally support the development of the other for McNally’s strong storyline to be properly showcased.
The play does have great potential to surprise the audience by revealing a relationship that evolves from purely sexual to truly intimate as if powered by the moonlight of Debussy’s ‘best song ever’ infused with the New York City night air. Though, perhaps in keeping with the misspelling of the title on the production’s poster —it should be ‘Clair de Lune’, not ‘Claire de Lune’— this staging of McNally’s classic only hints at the shifts in tone and tension that could be produced.
Perhaps it’s that the focus falls too heavily on the execution of the script (in painstaking detail, as is reflected in the set too); so much so that it hinders the complete translation of the characters’ feelings from playscript page to black-box stage. The result is that the audience can deduce what Frankie and Johnny are supposed to be feeling; they are just emotionally never fully privy to that connection. The magic of the moonlight needs to be accentuated more to reveal the emotions that feel as if they’re vibrating just underneath the surface of it all.
Admittedly, experiences (much like emotions) regularly differ, so fans of the play or movie (or both) may find that they appreciate this glimpse into the lives of the two lovers at the centre of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair* de Lune more than this reviewer.
Although the play does come with a nudity warning, this appears to be a cautionary notice as the performers never reveal all —sensitive theatre lovers would not feel uncomfortable. Bookings can be made online at www.alexanderbar.co.za for all who want to experience this play for themselves at the Alexander Upstairs.