AWKWARDNESS OF INTIMICY PORTRAYED WITH SENSITIVITY AT CV REP’S SEASON CLOSER
Horace, the Roman poet, instructed that art should either instruct or entertain. When a work of art does both — informing and delighting the viewer in one fell swoop – we witness a masterpiece. Such is the work of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s final production for the 2013-2014 season, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
I previously saw Frankie and Johnny in San Francisco back in 1988, when it initially had its West Coast premiere. On seeing it again, I expected it to feel dated and somewhat irrelevant. I was sorely mistaken. The CV Rep’s production is timely, intimate (embarrassingly so), and reveals the universal and timeless appeal of McNally’s profoundly moving dialogue.
The play is intimate in every sense of the word. It is a two-character play, and all the “action” takes place in a tight New York apartment. Because of this, the set design has to be on-target and the actors’ performances spot-on. With “look-ma-no-hands” bravado, the CV Rep hits the bull’s eye.
Joel Bryant’s Johnny and Stephanie Dawn Greene’s Frankie are mesmerizing. So believable are their exchange in their awkward post-first-date-one-night stand that one feels sort of embarrassed to be a witness to it. And engulfing their performance is a set ripped right out of late-80s rent-control New York. Kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for such an effectively designed set, as well as to Stuart Fabel for an equally effective lighting design, ranging from a tentative lunar glow at the start to the definitive exuberance of a new dawn.
But Frankie and Johnny is not just a slice-of-life dialogue play. Here, McNally presents two archetypes of middle-aged coupling. On the one hand is Johnny, whose past trials and tribulations have hardened into a softer dreamer, confident that his string of bad luck is finally at an end. Brazenly idealistic, Johnny — after having loved and lost — is now on the hunt for his soul mate. And he is sure he has found it in Frankie.
On the other hand is Frankie, the cautious and distrusting realist who is disinclined to jump to hasty conclusions given her past disappointments and jaded past loves. Together, McNally paints not only the full spectrum of middle-aged angst; he brackets the range with two seemingly conflicting stereotypes, creating a sort of Pirandello absurdist metaphysical play. As the two characters reveal themselves to each other — and to us — the play slowing progresses and crescendos to a new dawn, where once-tentative steps lead to solid advancement to permanence. Maybe.
And while McNally slowly builds his architecture of awkward middle-aged courtship, he also serves as a sort of Greek chorus instructing us that things are not as bad as we thought, after all. Informing and delighting in one memorable evening of performance art.
Yes, this play contains nudity and adult language. Deal with it. Given the intimate nature of the play, director Ron Celona delivers a most-sensitive production. Delicate. Fragile. Fully-satisfying. It is a marvelous way to cap off the CV Rep’s mini-retrospective of Terrence McNally’s early plays and bears witness to the strength of this playwright who, just this month, opened yet another new play on Broadway. Kudos all around! Performances from March 19 to April 6 on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is located at “The Atrium” at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270. Box Office at 760-296-2966. Further information at http://www.cvrep.org/
Armin’s Grade: A
Review by Contributing Arts & Theatre Editor, Armin Callo