One of the intriguing aspects of the South Florida stage scene is the "branding" of the many resident companies here. Instead of cherry-picking specific plays from various theaters, audiences tend to stick with certain troupes, regardless of what programming they offer. And theaters that thrive here do so in part because they establish clear marketable identities. Case in point is GableStage, whose current production, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, plays to the company's strong suits: solid direction, provocative material, and intense emotionally demanding performances. The result is decidedly successful. It's yet another Joseph Adler production that is so skillfully understated, it makes a daunting theatrical challenge appear nearly effortless.
The story starts off with a bang -- literally -- as the lights come up on the title roles: Frankie, an embittered waitress, and Johnny, a hyperromantic short-order cook -- in full, naked, spread-eagled sexual congress. Their physical needs dispensed with, the play then zeroes in on the really naked stuff: emotional intimacy and the avoidance thereof. After sex, Johnny wants only one thing -- to stay with Frankie forever. Unfortunately, Frankie wants two quite different things -- a meat-loaf sandwich and for Johnny to clear out of her rundown Hell's Kitchen flat. Therein lies the play's conflict and its theme. Is this a one-night stand or the start of something big?
Johnny waxes eloquent about marriage, children, and the full moon rising outside Frankie's tenement window. But Frankie can't handle this kind of talk on a first date. Sex, sure, but romance? Getouttahere. The script from Terrence McNally offers the audience a vicarious peek at two ordinary lives confronted with big life questions. Frankie and Johnny are in their 40s, ordinary-looking, lonely, and painfully aware their lives have little meaning or direction. Frankie's wary of commitment, still bearing the scars, physical and emotional, of an abusive relationship. Johnny's trying to make a comeback after a failed marriage and a stretch in prison. He studies Shakespeare and tries to learn the names of the classical music selections that happen to be playing on her bedside radio. She's all pessimism; he's boundlessly optimistic. Despite her rebukes and sarcasm, he won't give up on the possibility of real love. And what looks like another sad misconnection begins, with the help of Bach and Debussy, to show the flickers of real romantic passion and its redemptive healing power.
Frankie and Johnny has seen several incarnations. Kathy Bates scored big in the original 1987 off-Broadway version as the world-weary waitress whose cynical defenses start to crack under Johnny's relentless wooing. The 1991 Hollywood film version starred the stunning, stunningly miscast Michelle Pfeiffer in the role opposite the grittier, more plausible Al Pacino. The play enjoyed a popular New York revival last year and an added celebrity friction when its two stars, Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, began a romance off-stage as well as on.
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The GableStage production has an on-/off-stage story of its own as Adler has cast real-life partners Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull as the hard-luck lovers. Hoffman's knack for comedic material and his lumpy middle-age physique match his character well, though his portrayal lacks a certain desperation and self-delusion, which would help give more credence to Frankie's doubts and fears (and more threat to the relationship). The guy says he's absolutely certain their love can work, but his history suggests otherwise.
Turnbull nails Frankie's defeatism and her sarcasm-as-defense mechanisms, but as with Pfeiffer in the film version, her features and physique seem rather opposed to some of what the script says about her character. The basic idea is that Johnny is attracted to Frankie not because of the way she looks but in spite of it. These, though, are minor flaws in what by any measure is an acting tour de force. Never mind the requirements to display one's nakedness in sexual situations before a room full of strangers; this play keeps its two characters on-stage throughout each act without a breather. It's like an extended doubles skating exhibition -- there's no room for a fall or a misstep. Both performers acquit themselves with flying colors.
Adler's direction is particularly skilled and nearly invisible, as it well should be in a simple two-character play. The emotional beats are clearly defined, and the staging, while necessarily simple, is evocative. Adler uses Tim Connelly's set, a realistic rendition of a bare, drab New York walkup, to excellent effect. The décor -- and the sorry inventory in her refrigerator -- reveal a lot about Frankie's lonely life. Space has emotional texture -- the characters battle for the upper hand by claiming the bed, by occupying the kitchen. So do ordinary activities -- Johnny woos Frankie with his skill at chopping onions for an omelet, while the ordinary act of brushing one's teeth becomes, in this production, a sign of acceptance.
Frankie and Johnny, a play from the 1980s, shows its age in some ways. Its assumptions seem rather quaint. As in Lanford Wilson's Burn This, another play from the '80s, Frankie and Johnny offers a Bruce Springsteen worldview -- and a poetic, tortured, working-class hero who longs to transcend his daily grind through the power of love. To this, McNally also offers a classic haute bourgeois wish fulfillment -- that the magic of high culture can enlighten and humanize the working classes if only they would let it. Frankie and Johnny stumble onto a classical music station only to be mesmerized by Bach's "Goldberg Variations" as well as Debussy's "Clair de Lune" (hence the play's title) and the odd shreds and patches of Shakespeare that Johnny can remember. A nice daydream, but in this colder harsher era, when the arts are eviscerated from the schools, when levels of public arts support have reached drought proportions, and when coarse materialism triumphs in all areas of private and public life, such sentiments are even more escapist than they were 16 years ago.
What's inescapable today is that productions such as this and theater companies such as this are endangered species, brand identity or no. But the doctor is in, if briefly, and here is my prescription. Get down to the GableStage and catch this fine show while you can (if you can -- the show has been held over an additional week, but tickets are flying out of the box office). Second, wake up to the realities of Florida life. There is no cushion of philanthropic largess, no interest from a state government that seems intent on cutting everything from its budget except the salaries of the politicians. The arts, like democracy, require personal participation or all we will be left with is mass-marketed corporate consumerism instead of a culture. If you -- yes, you, personally -- don't take steps now to support courageous risk-taking theater companies such as GableStage by buying a subscription or mailing in a donation or rounding up your friends and turning them on to the several fine companies in this area, I guarantee that sooner or later, those companies won't be around anymore. And that day may come faster than you think.
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