FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Given the number of musicals Terrence McNally has worked on in recent years–A Man of No Importance, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Full Monty–I often wonder why he hasn’t made one out of his sweet 1987 play about a pair of prickly, middle-aged losers who fall in love in spite of themselves. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune has everything you need for a musical–interesting characters, a strong story line, moments of soaring emotion. Then again, it’s already a musical of sorts, thanks to McNally’s witty use of the classical music playing on Frankie’s radio to comment on the action: when Johnny can’t perform sexually we hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Garry Marshall, in his annoying sugarcoated movie version, made the mistake of thinking Frankie and Johnny was just musical comedy without much music, as have other directors and actors. But the beauty of this play is that McNally isn’t afraid to show his characters’ faults. Frankie is overly defensive and easily angered; Johnny is too aggressive for his, and Frankie’s, own good. Productions usually follow the pattern of the off-Broadway version that bombed here in the late 80s, in which a strong actress (the then-unknown Kathy Bates) rolled over a not as strong actor. But here director Austin Pendleton has found a Johnny, Yasen Peyankov, to equal Laurie Metcalf’s Frankie. The play is much funnier, more dramatic, and more satisfying if we aren’t quite sure how the play’s wrestling–mental, verbal, psychological, and physical–will turn out.