Friday, December 3, 2010

When Frankie met Johnny

Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton ponder a shared future as Frankie and Johnny.

Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is a kind of romance for the disappointed - which means it strikes quite the universal chord. I mean, aren't we all romantically disappointed? I've always felt McNally's poignant two-hander was a little slight, but sometimes minor works that tap into deep veins of common feeling have a way of lasting longer than their more-ambitious brethren, and by common acclaim, F&J in the CdL has become a minor classic (it has survived its initial framing by the AIDS crisis, which first gave it resonance, and if the hammy Al Pacino movie version couldn't kill it off, nothing can).

Thank God the small-scaled but thoughtful production now up at the New Rep, featuring local acting couple Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton, brings the play back to its unassuming roots. This Frankie and Johnny isn't about star turns but instead about the quiet lives of desperation McNally originally conjured. Frankie and Johnny aren't quite losers, but they're certainly not winners, either; she's a waitress, and he's a short-order cook, at some unnamed, but definitely not up-scale, diner. Neither is in their first youth, both have scars (physical and emotional), and both negotiate lives hemmed in by mistakes and bad breaks.

The play revolves, simply enough, on whether this pair can commit to making their one-night stand (the curtain rises at its climax, and they often lounge about in the nude) something more. Johnny is certainly sure about Frankie - particularly when she's framed like a middle-aged angel in the square of moonlight falling on her cramped digs - but Frankie's not quite so sure about Johnny. She's the more defeated one, the one who's haunted by the fact that her neighbor beats his wife, the one we sense has more to risk, and more to lose. "You're too needy!" she cries at one point when Johnny encroaches once too often on her space, and she even delivers a "Snap-out-it!" slap when one of his flights of rapture gets a little too coercive.

At conveying all this, Anne Gottlieb, who by now is widely recognized as one of our finest actresses, is just about peerless. Even if sometimes we feel she's over-reacting to Pemberton, who delivers a solid performance but lacks the live-wire instability that can up the emotional risk factor for these two in a more dramatic way. I couldn't help feeling that Johnny should be a little sketchier, perhaps even slightly threatening at times; when he tells Frankie, "I would never hurt you," we should wonder whether he might not anyway, without meaning to.

Still, Pemberton basically puts the role over, and the production becomes steadily, if quietly, affecting. There are a few missteps here and there - director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman lets some sequences meander; but after the spate of weak directing the New Rep has endured of late, he comes across generally as a low-key genius. I was also surprised to note that designer Erik D. Diaz had put what looked like a Pollaiulo and a Steichen on Frankie's walls, even though she doesn't know the name of "Clair de Lune." But these are quibbles. By the time they seal the deal on their new relationship simply by brushing their teeth together (at top), we sense that Gottlieb and Pemberton have likewise sealed the deal on McNally's rueful, realistic vision of true romance.

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