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Review: ‘Frankie’ is smart, funny and a bit creepy

Mon., Sept. 21, 2009

The Interplayers production of Terrence McNally’s 1987 romantic black comedy, “Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” is a tough nut to crack.

On one hand, this story of a blue-collar one-night stand has proven in the past to be an effective star vehicle for Kathy Bates, Michelle Pfeiffer, Al Pacino, Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. The script is filled with smart McNally verbal byplay.

On the other hand, the play’s only two characters aren’t particularly easy to warm to. Frankie is a lonely and cynical waitress at a diner who no longer believes in love. Johnny is a non-stop motormouth ex-con short order cook, who has a poor sense of, let us say, boundaries. He decides, after one date, that he is deeply in love with Frankie and wants to marry her and have children. And he can’t stop goggling at her.

Johnny’s more than a little creepy, and that’s not my word, that’s Frankie’s word. She repeatedly tells him that he’s being creepy and forward and just … strange.

So here’s the conundrum for director Jonn Jorgensen and the acting team of Karen Kalensky and John Henry Whitaker. To be true to McNally’s story, you have to make these characters a little bit maddening and a little bit creepy. And if you do that successfully enough, you run the risk of giving the audience a night of theater that is … well, you get the picture.

So that’s the combination we have in the Interplayers’ opening production: a play that is often thought-provoking, often clever and often well-done, but also just a little bit exasperating.

The play opens with the couple in bed, in the throes of ecstasy on their first date. The rest of the first act consists of verbal jousting that can be summarized like this: I love you. No, you don’t. Yes, I do. Well, stop it.

I found this entertaining and funny through most of the first act. Yet when the second act arrived and the byplay consisted of more of the same, I found my attention wandering.

The husband-wife team of Whitaker and Kalensky exhibited good chemistry and a flair for the quick comeback. Kalensky has an understated, dry delivery. It was easy to imagine her as a waitress who has given up on romance – and, in some ways, life. Her idea of a good time is a late-night TV movie and some ice cream. She sweeps through her small Manhattan apartment, alternately drawing her dressing gown tight around her for protection and allowing it to wave like a flag behind her.

Whitaker delivered his lines in Brooklyn tough-guy fashion – almost Runyonesque.

“Dumb I am not,” was one of his injured rejoinders.

This Brooklynese was even more effective when his words were surprisingly elegant, showing off his self-taught Shakespeare.

Elegant, however, is not the word to describe most of this play. Whitaker spends the entire play in his boxer shorts, showing off a generous expanse of belly and a couple of tattoos. Add in his long, slicked-back hair and you could be in a Hell’s Angels clubhouse.

McNally’s language is sometimes crude, and so are some of the situations. One of the most awkward scenes consists of Johnny simply staring at – worshipping, really – a particular portion of Frankie’s anatomy. Jorgensen stages this discreetly – there is no nudity in this play – yet the effect is still a bit off-putting. If the point was to show how weird Johnny can be, it worked.

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