Fine Cheap Romance
Frankie and Johnny make something like love in Salinas.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
When things have gone wrong for so long, the whole world looks baited and ready to snap like some kind of giant bear trap. After years of disappointment, abuse and struggle, all Frankie wants is to make rent and get laid every once in a while. Everything else is a potentially disastrous complication.
Frankie, a waitress down at a local greasy spoon, invites Johnny, the new short order cook, up to her tiny apartment for a roll in the hay. Terrence McNally’s intimate, profane, bittersweet, romantic play, running through Feb. 20 at the historic Fox Theatre in Salinas, opens with Frankie and Johnny loudly climaxing. With her immediate needs met, Frankie rolls out of bed, throws on a short silk robe and begins hinting to Johnny that it’s time to go.
But Johnny has unexpectedly fallen hard and wants more, much more. A manic romantic whose “heart is so full you could feel the lump,” Johnny stalks the stage in his boxer shorts. High on the post-coital intimacy of the unexpected encounter, he loudly and repeatedly proclaims his love for her. It’s immediately apparent that he is not going home anytime soon.
The sensible, down-to-earth Frankie is frightened by this stranger’s wild proclamations and his refusal to leave. When Johnny grabs her and pulls her near in the first of a thousand rough physical attempts at emotional intimacy, she tells him: “That’s not connecting; that’s holding and staring.” It’s a thrust and parry that carries throughout the play.
McNally’s script is captured in the physical and emotional presence of Koly McBride and Lloyd Brewer. Brewer portrays a brash middle-aged adolescence—thrusting his chin out at the world, fully expecting it to break his jaw with an uppercut. His Johnny is a wounded man who’s made a thousand bad choices, yet he insists on exposing himself to rejection out of a desperate hope that things can still turn. He grasps at coincidences, imagined signs, vague omens that this one-night stand is love.
Yet within his self-conscious strut and crow, there is a child-like vulnerability that allows the audience to believe that Frankie just might not call the cops (as she threatens to do early on). It’s a complex, emotive performance in which Brewer allows us to believe that Frankie might be attracted to his humor and honesty despite the fear and anger and manic tendencies that lend to the play’s scary hostage situation undercurrent. The guy’s a nut, but a sincere nut and slowly, very slowly we see Frankie allow herself to believe that there might be more to this Saturday night than just empty sex and the promise of an uncomfortable Monday morning at work.
McBride flitters, slyly evasive and armed with a quiver of sarcasm and a shield of irony. Her hands remain nervously in motion as she attempts to evict, then placate, then understand this passionate and scary man she’s let in to her life.
The performances aren’t perfect. At times, Brewer doesn’t seem to know what to do with his arms and McBride relies on the same series of nervous gestures again and again, but even these minor flaws help convey a jittery vulnerability and discomfort. Although the pair’s timing is not perfect, they create a rhythmic rapport that is continually engaging.
McNally’s script is a gem—or rather a very pretty cubic zirconia. At times it walks the fine line between profundity and sentimentality, but manages to be frequently very funny and occasionally hysterical. For instance, when Johnny confides that he needs the lights off to have sex because of a Great Dane that used to watch him masturbate when he was growing up in a foster home, Frankie complies—then barks at him in the dark.
Once again, the Paper Wing Theater has made magic out of nothing. On a nearly non-existent budget, Robert Adams has created a beautiful set in a space that must be the most difficult on the Peninsula to design in. The Fox Theatre is a massive, gothic, impressive space. Perfect for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, not ideal for an apartment play like Frankie and Johnny. Yet with lighting help from Ronald Moore, Adams has managed an intimate backdrop for Brewer and McBride.
“People only get one chance to connect,” Johnny tells Frankie in the first act. “If they miss it, it’s right through their fingers and gone.” Koly McBride and her small, dedicated crew at the Paper Wing Theatre can obviously identify with Johnny. They are single-handedly keeping Salinas’ independent theater scene and the Fox alive on energy and audacity alone.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through Feb. 20 at The Fox Theatre, 243 Main Street, Salinas. 675-0521. Tickets are $17; $15/seniors.