Love is messy, and first meetings are rarely cute. As two people negotiate the treacherous route toward real connection, especially in the fragile moments following that first sexual encounter, there are a million things that can go wrong for every one thing that might go right. When spinning a tale of love’s brittle beginnings, movies and plays seldom tell the true story of first-time, postcoital relationship, opting instead for a gooey artificiality that smells of sugar-coated misdirection and blissful wishful thinking.
If this weren’t true, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune—currently playing courtesy of director Jasson Minadakis and the Marin Theatre Company—would not seem as shockingly real and revelatory as it does. Though little happens in Frankie and Johnny that is not recognizable to millions of people who, at one time or another, have looked new lovers in the face and wondered about what should happen next, the playwright’s commitment to avoiding artifice comes off as a kind of theatrical revolution, rather than just the unremarkable story of two people wrestling with the clunky psychological mechanics of sexual aftermath.
For Frankie (Terri McMahon), a waitress slinging hash in a seedy New York restaurant, the night is supposed to end as the play does, with a mighty mutual climax as she and Johnny make love in her tiny one-room apartment. Battle-scarred and love-weary, Frankie is slow to develop relationships, and though she did bring Johnny home to bed after a first date, when it comes to emotional attachment, she prefers to take her time.
Johnny (a gruffly mesmerizing Rod Gnapp) has other ideas. Not content with yet another one-night stand, the ex-con short order cook makes it perfectly clear, much to Frankie’s growing disquiet, that he is in this for the long haul. Citing the fateful coincidence of their names—Frankie and Johnny being the legendary lovers in the famous 19th-century murder ballad that does not end well—Johnny is not in the mood for caution where love is concerned. Though recognizing Frankie’s resistance, he launches an all-out campaign to win her heart, not eventually, but on this very night.
The result is a battle of words and feeling that runs the gamut from comedy to drama, from sexy to startling, from painful to healing, as Frankie and Johnny thrust and parry through a long night of soul-searching and roller-coaster emotions, in which Frankie’s lonely layers of protection are gradually peeled back, and Johnny’s poetic-aggressive hunger gives way to a softer, more sympathetic expression of love.
In Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the Clair de Lune has two meanings: French for “moonlight,” it is also the name of the famous third movement of composer Claude Debussy’s lyrical Suite Bergamasque, which a late-night radio DJ plays after Johnny’s heartbreaking request to hear “the most beautiful music in the world.” The direction by Minadakis is a marvel of detailed believability. From the steamy opening sex act to the pivotal second act sandwich-making scene, there is not a false move onstage.
As Frankie and Johnny, McMahon and Gnapp give nakedly honest performances, bearing it all in more ways than one. Arguably two of the best onstage performances of the year, this Frankie and Johnny is worth catching for the actors alone, but as served up by Minadakis, the whole heart-stirring package is satisfying, right down to the lovely, lived-in set Kate Conley and the moonlight-and-sunrise light design of Michael Palumbo.
And then there is McNally’s remarkable language, alternately simple and knowing, as when Frankie states early on, “Look, I don’t think this is going to work out,” or when Johnny, sensing a turning point that could end this potential love forever, plaintively begs, “We gotta connect. We just have to. Or we die.”
This is a production that will not die, thankfully, but will, to risk sounding like Johnny, live in the memories of all those lucky enough and brave enough to catch it before it’s gone forever.
‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune’ plays Tuesday&–Sunday through Oct. 5, at Marin Theatre Company. Tuesday, Thursday&–Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 7pm; matinees, Sept. 25 at 1pm; Oct 4 at 2pm; every Sunday at 2pm. 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $31&–$51. 415.388.5208.
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