By Terrence McNally
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Kate Buddeke and Vito D’Ambrosio (Photo: Scott Suchman)
Young love – it’s a beautiful thing. Gorgeous fresh bodies, writing poetry; singing ballads; heads so full of their beloved that they sometimes combust spontaneously. But middle-aged love – that, brothers and sisters, is a stone miracle. Dr. Johnson famously observed that a second marriage is a triumph of optimism over experience, but love past the age of reason – which we all know is not seven, but forty – is more than that: it is the triumph of life over death.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is less a play than a meditation, or a classroom in the art of mature love. McNally, who does not write a single false note in this play, deserves a production meticulously dedicated to authenticity, and he gets one from Arena. Nancy Schertler’s brilliant lighting design illuminates the apartment mostly by moonlight, lamp light and the first rays of morning sun. Neil Patel’s astonishing set allows us to savor the aroma of the onions Johnny is frying up on Frankie’s battered and tarnished cookware, and turns the audience into visitors in Frankie’s studio apartment, watching the relationship dissected much as visitors to an operating theatre observe surgery.
Frankie (Kate Buddeke) and Johnny (Vito D’Ambrosio) come to us on a sleighbed of passion, grunting and bellowing their way to orgasm as the lights go up. In a story of young love this might be the climax, as it were, to the story but here it is just the beginning. The real target is something much more elusive, terrifying and satisfying: emotional intimacy. Johnny, loudly and without subtlety, lays his cards and himself on the table early: he loves Frankie, and he wants her love. He is so noisy, and so persistent, that Frankie (who has survived one abusive relationship) soon wants him gone.
I must say that through much of the first Act, I agreed with her. McNally gave Johnny an unusually large number of obnoxious qualities, and D’Ambrosio hits every one of them vigorously in this production. He is overbearing; he interrupts; and he will not go home. His overweening characteristic is persistence. Persistence in romance is frequently rewarded in fiction, but in real life it generally results in a restraining order. D’Ambrosio’s Johnny wanders perilously close to Boy Gets Girl territory, but does not cross the line, and by the second Act, his outlandish characteristics are almost endearing.
It is Buddeke’s magnificent Frankie, however, that is the human heart of this production. Scarred inside and out, she is justly afraid of Johnny’s love, which would also require her to love herself. She recalls a time when she, as a child, sought to make herself beautiful by sleeping in the streaming moonlight. When her grandmother came in to close the shutters, Frankie wanted to stop her but didn’t. "I felt safe. I felt loved. I decided that was better than looking like Audrey Hepburn." Frankie and Johnny, standing together in the clear moonlight listening to "Clair de Lune", are more beautiful than Hepburn could ever have hoped to have been.
They do the adult magic tricks: compassion; acceptance; the forgiveness of sins. Johnny describes his hard times and hard time. Frankie tells the lowlights of a punch-drunk life. There are missteps: when Johnny asks Frankie to perform the sex act made famous by former President Clinton, it almost derails the relationship. But these grownups are sailing eyes-open into the sea of love, and there are no setbacks, only adjustments.
Johnny, who keeps dog-eared copies of Shakespeare’s plays in the kitchen where he works, is surely familiar with Sonnet CXXX:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet will I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound,
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress when she walks treads upon the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
In the end, as the sun rises over Hell’s Kitchen, Frankie and Johnny sit on the bed and listen once again to the nocturne whose name gives this play half its title performing an oral act which in the context of this play is as erotic and intimate as anything Johnny had previously contemplated.
It’s a beautiful thing.
(Running time: approx 2:10 with intermission) Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune continues Tuesdays through Sundays at the Kreeger Theater of Arena Stage until April 8. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays are at 7.30, except April 8th’s show is at 6. Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8. There are 2 o’clock matinees on Saturdays and Sundays and matinees at noon on March 6 and 21 and April 4. Tickets are $46-$66 (with some discounts available). Arena Stage The play contains some nudity.