'Frankie and Johnny': Romance Over Easy

Kate Buddeke and Vito D'Ambrosio are well matched as the romantically challenged couple in Terrence McNally's
Kate Buddeke and Vito D'Ambrosio are well matched as the romantically challenged couple in Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," capably revived at Arena Stage. (By Scott Suchman -- Arena Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Is Johnny an answer to a prayer -- or just one of those nut jobs who proposes to every woman he sleeps with?

The question hangs in the air for the longest time in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," Terrence McNally's wryly perceptive portrait of love and its power to crack the hardest shells. Johnny (Vito D'Ambrosio) is a short-order cook in a diner where Frankie (Kate Buddeke) works as a waitress, and in the dewy postscript to a first date and a noisy romp between the sheets, he decides she is absolutely, positively, no ifs-ands-or-buts about it, the one he's been looking for all his life.

What the perplexed and chagrined (and secretly flattered) Frankie has to say about all that forms the molten comic core of the play, which has been revived at Arena Stage under the inspired direction of David Muse. The push-me-pull-you dynamic is forged in the amusing standoff between Johnny's relentlessness and Frankie's guardedness, and the payoff comes in the touching ways ardor and caution are allowed to feed each other and illuminate the fragile borders of lonely lives.

The emotional impasse is all the more compelling for the ordinariness of McNally's protagonists, working-class characters who have complicated histories and pronounced blemishes. They're middle-aged people with real, middle-aged bodies, the bumpy sort you don't usually see in states of undress on a stage. And their lovemaking, executed in a protracted scene that opens the play, is as loud and frank as their conversations.

"Frankie and Johnny," in fact, posits truth as the greatest aphrodisiac of all. Although the play loses some steam in the second act -- the revelation of the basis for Frankie's mistrust gets lost in the circuitous narrative -- it successfully continues to promulgate the idea that the sexiest thing you can bare is your soul.

The play, at some level, is about shedding one's vanity, and a fundamental problem in some productions is that the actors can't sufficiently mute their radiant auras. Michelle Pfeiffer, in a silly bit of miscasting, played plain Frankie opposite Al Pacino in the 1991 movie version. No manual demands that Johnny be a blimp, but the astonishing six-pack on Stanley Tucci in the 2002 Broadway revival made him look more like the preening personal trainer than the lover of his co-star, Edie Falco. (The original 1987 off-Broadway version starred Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh.)

The pairing of D'Ambrosio and Buddeke shows how much credibility can be gained just in the casting. They're nice-looking, but not to an intimidating degree. Buddeke approximates the throaty effects of 100,000 Marlboros: You can envision her Frankie behind a counter, pouring a cup of coffee and addressing every customer as "Hon."

"Frankie and Johnny" takes place in Frankie's apartment in a downscale neighborhood on Manhattan's West Side. In Arena's Kreeger Theater, set designer Neil Patel places Frankie's flat on a turntable, and when it spins into view, it's as big-city anonymous as the two lovers themselves. Behind the revolving apartment is a horizon dotted with dozens of windows, through which one might witness dozens of Frankies and Johnnys acting out their own romantic fables.

McNally plays with the idea that Frankie and Johnny are both ordinary and one of a kind, a couple fated for each other in a blue-collar kismet sort of way. (As if to reinforce the mystical aspect, the playwright has a skeptical classical-radio host -- responding over the air to Johnny's request for Bach's "Goldberg Variations" -- say that he wishes he could believe there was an ideal romantic couple with the couple's names.)

As portrayed by the deft D'Ambrosio, however, Johnny really does seem one of a kind. At first you're not sure what kind that is. Big and boisterous -- with the type of oblivious volume that pierces apartment walls -- D'Ambrosio's Johnny seems a bit of a jerk. He makes hyperbolic declarations and plans that defy all the rules of the mating game. They're all about his unshakable conviction that he has just slept with his destiny.

Buddeke's Frankie can't absorb the magnitude of Johnny's rapture, and it's a measure of the effectiveness of her performance that we're totally with her as she tries to figure out how to get rid of him. But perhaps there is more to this hash-slinger than his exaggerated chivalry allows Frankie to see. Perhaps there is more flexibility in this waitress than resolute standoffishness gives her credit for. Perhaps there is a growing chink in a wall already weakened by years of longing.

We're ultimately cheered in "Frankie and Johnny" by a broadening of our sense of what is possible. By play's end, a romantic cul-de-sac has been redesigned, as a road to somewhere new.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, by Terrence McNally. Directed by David Muse. Costumes, T. Tyler Stumpf; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Daniel Baker; fight director, Robb Hunter; dialects, Gary Logan. About 2 hours. Through April 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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