“Frankie and Johnny were lovers,” so goes the familiar ballad, and so goes the play by Terrence McNally where a short order cook and waitress connect for an overnight romp of intimacy, exploration, and discovery. The sex comes at you first, before the lights come up, before a word is spoken–the familiar sounds of panting, pleasure and mutual climax. McNally’s message is clear and direct-sex is a significant and natural force to be reckoned with; no explanation, preparation, or building up to it, the nudity is immediate. McNally never claimed to be patient with those squeamish about body parts and raw language about the same, and it’s thrilling to see how Quotidian thrusts itself into the sexual foray with skill and abandon. Known for its quality productions of traditional writers such as Anton Chekov and Horton Foote, Quotidian’s selection and passionate execution of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune directed by Bob Bartlett assures its highly respected position in the regional theater scene.
Of course, nudity alone does not a quality production make –the stakes have to be higher than the sex, especially when it’s the opening number. Once the obligatory robe is wrapped and boxers pulled on, the production delivers solid acting, sure directing, effective sound and music design, and an omnipresent moonbeam shining hope to the misbegotten. Ken Arnold as Johnny effortlessly sustains the sexual tension throughout the show, reminiscent of a nice and enlightened Stanley Kowalski. Even if you missed his portrayal of a reserved English gentleman in the Mai several months ago, be sure to catch him here in Brooklyn accented full frontal glory. His Johnny is a brute force filled with a natural sweet intensity and stunning physicality. Ken doesn’t just move around the small cluttered room, he prowls, stalks, swaggers and settles, then he’s up and prowling again always returning eventually to his domain- the bed. His Johnny claims the bed and makes it his, thrashing around in it, lovingly making it up, rolling around on it and even taking a cannonball diving leap into it. He’s simply genuine, marvelous and crowd-pleasingly real.
Erika Imhoof more than holds her own high energy levels as Frankie, staking her territory, volleying comebacks and reacting to his zaniness, while sustaining a commanding presence on stage. Whether she’s achingly vulnerable when opening her robe to permit him a full gaze, puttering around the room, exploding into a rage because of his incessantly strange manner, or melting comfortably into his embrace, Erika proves that she is more than a match for her mercurial Johnny.
And then, there’s that moonbeam with just the right warm glow to work its magic on moonstruck lovers before slowly lighting into a new dawn. After all the thrashing about, sharing secrets, connecting the unexpected similarities in their lives, even down to the coupling of their names, whether the lovers survive the light of day is anybody’s guess. Despite Johnny’s wild protestations of love at the very start, we know that theirs will not be a giggling romp into romantic bliss, not with the gritty reality of their connection vérité. Still, the play ends on a moment of sharing as touchingly intimate as the first, with tender expressions of hope and wonder beautifully delivered by both actors. And that is what this production offers in the clear light of day and the moon-hope.