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Body Politic Theatre

With Leonard Foglia directing it, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune plays like what it is: a misfit romance in the tradition of misfit romances, with just enough slack on the form to make it interesting. Look at it that way and it’s a pretty good show. Only I can’t help thinking that McNally wanted this script to be something more than that. I think he was after something wilder.

If you’ve seen Murray Schisgal’s The Tiger or William Mastrosimone’s The Woolgatherer or John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, then you’ve seen a misfit romance. They’re intimate little two-character dramas (great for audition pieces or showcase productions) in which a couple of borderline sociopaths with heavy emotional scar tissue alternately harass and cling to one another–hissing and spitting and confessing all their deepest, darkest, most expository secrets–until that inevitable moment when they rediscover a forgotten vulnerability and fall in love. The setting is usually a cramped big-city rat hole of an apartment; the tone is ditzy-sad; the secret is a soft heart wrapped in tough talk.

The edgy lovers in McNally’s play are a disillusioned would-be actress and a lonely drifter. Frankie and Johnny meet at work; she’s a waitress and he’s the new short-order cook. They have a bad date and good sex, and when it’s over Frankie’s ready for Johnny to say thank you and go home. He won’t, though. He wheedles and bullies and tries to filibuster his way into her heart, demanding an intimacy she’s absolutely unwilling to supply.

What follows–structurally, at least–is the usual misfit tug-of-war, punctuated by a series of monologues detailing our heroes’ deprived youths and soured relationships. McNally doesn’t meddle with the basic pattern; his job is to make it lively. And he does. A talented second-ranker, McNally has a funny, skillful way with small challenges. Faced, for instance, with the problem of passing us pages and pages of maudlin background on his two characters without being too obvious, too arduous, or too dull about it, he sets up a running gag where Johnny keeps claiming to have discerned amazing coincidences between his life and Frankie’s. Frankie’s mom walked out on her? Wow! So did his. Frankie grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania? Wow! He spent a few years there himself.

Not only does this device solve McNally’s logistical difficulties–it gives us a bit of insight into Johnny, as well. We can gauge his suffering by the contortions he goes through to try to find some kind of common ground with Frankie, in the eagerness with which he attempts to ratify his essentially arbitrary connection with her.

Johnny’s eagerness spills over into something more dangerous at times. There comes a point when, mounting a major push to get her would-be lover out of her apartment, Frankie threatens to call the police on him. “They’ll come, give or take an hour or two,” he replies. “They’ll make me leave but I’ll be right back. That’s a very handy fire escape. If not tonight, then tomorrow or the day after that. Sooner or later you’re gonna have to deal with me.” Now this little speech may be construed as Johnny’s loving, if hyperbolic, attempt to keep Frankie from throwing away a solid chance at happiness. But it’s also damned menacing. And, taken with other factors–including a criminal record, a manic loquacity, and a general strategy of bulldozing Frankie into submission–it suggests that Johnny may be a guy with serious problems. McNally may have been going for something more than comic irony when he named his misfits for a pair of legendary lovers whose relationship ended in violence.

But dark corners aren’t on Foglia’s directorial itinerary. He ignores McNally’s clear intimations of a deeper, meaner level to the drama, and keeps things ditzy-sad instead. Bittersweet’s the word for this production. Tony Campisi’s Johnny is intriguing–but not the least bit scary–in his ingratiating, slightly stupid obnoxiousness. Kathy Bates gives Frankie’s anger and despair and amusing, Roseanne-ish whine. This Frankie and Johnny is about as funny and winsome as a misfit romance can be. Still, that’s less than it truly is.