L.I.P. service’s Frankie & Johnny filled with sublime heartache and mirth

Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune has (the more you think about it) a bizarre premise. Johnny and Frankie work in the same diner. Frankie is a waitress and Johnny is a cook. When Act One opens the two are “consummating” at the end of a date. Frankie sees this as casual (but not indiscriminate) sex. Johnny has decided that Frankie’s the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Johnny believes in love at first sight. This, by itself, is not so awful, but Johnny comes on like a hurricane at a funeral. Like the old joke about the amorous Lesbian couple, Johnny doesn’t believe in second dates. He seems ready to move in. He’s charming and absolutely genuine, but his better qualities are soon engulfed by his utter lack of finesse. He does nothing by halves, but seems determined to tell Frankie how to behave as well. As any of us might imagine, this is a dubious approach to a new relationship.

McNally seems to be exploring role-reversal, too. Johnny is the romantic, emotion one, crazy to commit. Frankie is happy to take it slow, and see how things go, before jumping into an intense, lifelong attachment. It’s curious how Johnny seems to embody the downside of heartfelt passion. He seems to forget that Romeo and Juliet shared a mutual intensity. Johnny is so cocky and bossy (in addition to being tender and moonstruck) Frankie doesn’t know whether to appreciate his warmth or kick him out. He’s not just loopy, he seems to verge on being certifiable. As for Frankie, her sensible attitude is undercut by a pervasive sense of melancholy and spiritual damage. When she confides she sometimes pulls up a chair to watch an abusive couple across the courtyard, we wonder if she figures toxic attention is better than none at all.

Under the meticulous direction of Stefany Cambra, Jason Leyva and Jenny Tucker manage these ragged, demanding roles. McNally drags these characters through all sorts of trials, travails and wrenching personal moments. Leyva and Tucker are up on that stage for a very long stretch, in a drama that takes place in real time. The characters involve us in their prolonged, tumultuous connection, but we never sense the actors themselves are running out of steam. We are under their spell.

So, then, this is where Terrence McNally takes us. Frankie isn’t just cautious, she’s swimming dark waters. Johnny believes in living for the moment, and that Frankie and he share a destiny. The plot does much to encourage this. Like most excellent playwrights McNally leaves us at the watering trough and lets us reach our own conclusions There’s something vaguely twisted (and strangely satisfying) about the painful, somber thread that winds through this entire piece. We all know that successful relationships are not about finding the perfect mate, but the perfect match. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune teases us by sparking our longing for this pair of slapdash, tattered souls. We wind up feeling some odd mix of the frightening and sublime. We’re afraid they’ll stay together and afraid they won’t.

L.I. P. Service Productions presents Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, playing January 27th-February 12, 2017. Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts, 11888 Marsh Lane, Suite 600, Dallas, Texas 75234. 817-689-6461

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