Frankie and Johnnyin the Clair de Lune

Enjoy multiple pleasures


I'm a fan of Hollywood. But off the top of my head, I can't think of a single occasion when Tinsel Town has taken an original work and held back on the tinsel: made it darker instead of lighter, more like real life instead of less, truer as opposed to falser or where it has dumbed up instead of dumbed down. And so it was with Gary Marshall's 1991 film version of Terrence McNally's bittersweet two hander which was first seen in New York in 1987.

It starred a relatively unknown Kathy Bates as waitress diner Frankie (before she hit the big time as the scary frump in the movie Misery), and the not quite handsome F. Murray Abraham as short-order chef Johnny, though Murray had already become well known for his oscar-winning portrayal of embittered composer Antonio Salieri in Amadeus.

And even though the film had a screenplay adapted by McNally from his own play, the idea of a love story about ordinary and ordinary-looking people was ditched. So they cast Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino.

This engrossing revival starring Dervla Kirwan and Neil Stuke goes back to the work's roots. And not only because Kirwan and Stuke are more Bates and Abraham than Pfeiffer and Pacino, but because we also get treated to one of the more memorable opening scenes in the canon: multiple orgasms - in this case one each for Frankie and Johnny.

Rarely, if ever, has a production devoted as much time to a sex scene. What makes this one so watchable is that there is nothing romantic about it. Nor is there much rosy and cosy about Paulette Randall's terrifically performed production.

Stuke and Kirwan capture perfectly the faltering steps of a relationship that may or may not survive its consummation. In that sense the play is the emotional opposite of When Harry Met Sally, whose author Nora Ephron made the opposite journey to McNally's by turning her movie into a less than satisfying play.

Here, it's not so much about will-they-or-won't-they be attracted to each other, but whether they can or can't be soulmates. The script is driven by Johnny's blunt declarations of love but also his determination to turn what for Frankie was always likely to be a one night stand into a life-long relationship.

In his tight, belly-hugging vest, Stuke is terrific as the self-educated, Shakespeare-quoting Johnny. And Kirwan is the perfect foil, transmitting the suppressed sensuality of a woman escaping a violent and lovelorn past.

Randall lays on the 80s period, when a flat in Hell's Kitchen could be afforded by a waitress, with period pop. I could have done with less of that. Especially after the couple discover Debussy whose piece Clair de Lune lends the work half of its title. But that's a small gripe for what is essentially a beautiful play that is beautifully played.

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