Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Pyewacket, at the Heartland Studio Theater. Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally usually drives me crazy. His plays run too long, his characters talk too much, and his use of humor to deflate emotional tension often seems more a defense mechanism than a dramatic technique. This 1987 play is an exception.

Two lonely losers, a waitress and a grill man, finally begin to break through each other’s armor after a long evening of fighting and fucking. Remarkable in its subtlety, simplicity, and ability to be emotionally honest without being sentimental, this two-person play was written for actors of the caliber of Kathy Bates, who originated the role of the brittle Frankie off-Broadway. Yet it’s a good enough script to succeed with a less-than-perfect cast. Witness Linda LeVeque’s sometimes graceful, sometimes merely workmanlike low-budget production.

Half the cast is immeasurably better than the other. Kate Harris really gets under the skin of her character, revealing Frankie’s vulnerability in the smallest gesture even as she maintains her everyday tough-babe exterior. David Tatosian doesn’t do nearly as well as Johnny, largely because he never lets us forget he’s an actor playing a role: like some overeager algebra student, he insists on showing us his work. A weaker script might have fallen prey to such an off-balance ensemble, but not McNally’s. Despite occasional awkward moments, this production is still satisfying.