Sparks fly in Miners Alley Playhouse season opener

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is definitely an adult comedy. Not because of its unabashed openness, even brashness, about sex. But because of its insightful exploration into the complexities of real-life relationships.

While Terrence McNally’s play still has many of the lighthearted elements of traditional romantic comedies, its allure comes from exposing the lengths we go to protect ourselves emotionally, as well as showcasing the overriding human need for connection. Nor does it neatly tie up everything in a “happily ever after” ending.

What elevates this production at Golden’s Miners Alley Playhouse are the stellar performances of veteran local actors Jessica Robblee as Frankie and Bill Hahn as Johnny. Under director Warren Sherril’s guidance, the two take it the next level as they maneuver around and with each other on the small darkened stage. (Sherril is familiar to many MAP patrons. He most recently directed Lost in Yonkers and Lend Me a Tenor at the theater.)

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was first performed off-Broadway in 1987 and is MAP’s first production of the 2020 season.

Some may recognize the title from the 1991 movie starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, which is loosely based on the play. But the play covers a much more condensed time period since it takes place over a single night and only features the two titular characters.

An unexpected declaration of love

Frankie and Johnny work in a greasy spoon in New York City. She’s a waitress, he’s the new line cook. The two middle-aged co-workers have noticed one another and finally go out on a date. Afterwards, she invites him up to her apartment where he interrupts the post-coital haze after the raucous opening sex scene to declare his love for her. He then begins to outline plans for marriage and children.

Frankie, however, is only expecting a one-night stand and wants Johnny to leave. Despite her increasingly insistent requests – which turn into demands — Johnny refuses and continues his oft-times over-the-top, Shakespeare paraphrasing efforts to woo her. It’s obvious that Johnny has had an epiphany. There is no more time to waste. They are meant for one another and he can’t risk losing this chance. His single-minded determination catches the commitment-wary Frankie completely off-guard.

And this is where the brilliance of McNally’s script comes in. There is a fine line between a lover’s persistence and a stalker’s intent. Johnny’s unbridled exuberance and sincere attempts to get Frankie to see — and feel — their connection turns him into a desperate, starstruck lover rather than a creep who won’t leave; even after she goes so far as to threaten to call the police.

The action is flipped in the second act so that Frankie takes more control of the narrative as she begins to verbalize her own wants and needs. This includes insisting that Johnny prepare his signature Western omelet for her despite his protests. We begin to see them become more balanced as a couple as Johnny’s personal revelations and unexpectedly romantic gestures slowly disarm Frankie, who is beginning to recognize their similarities and starts to let her guard down.

Chemistry sparks onstage

Both actors’ performances are so vulnerable, their characterizations so precise, that we are willing to forgive their characters’ shortcomings – Frankie’s testiness and Johnny’s intense neediness. We sympathize with them and understand that their idiosyncrasies stem from loneliness rather than bad intentions. And the nudity in the play is more the two characters stripping themselves bare – literally and figuratively — than a titillating act.

The chemistry between Robblee and Hahn is apparent from the start when we’re introduced to them mid-orgasm, and it continues to the end when they are the picture of domestic bliss as they watch the sun rise to the strains of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Their interplay throughout the play, particularly while doing the everyday tasks of cooking and eating, is a delightful game of cat-and-mouse that incorporates nearly every inch of the stage.

Director Sherrill’s timing and sense of physical space is flawless.

Hahn’s spot-on portrayal of the offbeat, high-strung Johnny keeps us secretly rooting for him as he struts across the cramped apartment. The quirkiness is charming under Hahn’s skilled interpretation, and he quickly allays our fears that things may get violent. That makes it even more believable when his rough but sincere appeal begins to sway the intractable Frankie.

For instance, Hahn leaps on each discovery of overlaps between his and Frankie’s pasts (“You’re from Allentown? I was born in Allentown!”), with a giddy rush of emotion that belies his rough veneer.

And Robblee’s Frankie is divine. The flashes of vulnerability that slip through under her tough façade give her a warmth and humanity that prevents her from appearing harsh as she repeatedly rebuffs her persistent lover. The depth of her loneliness is finally revealed when she confesses to Johnny that she often stands in the dark and watches her neighbors across the way. And her obvious hurt and dismay when she confronts one of those neighbors about her abusive spouse — only to be rebuffed by the woman — supports Johnny’s instant affection for her. As do her confessions about her own past.

Robblee, who one could argue is actually too attractive for the role of frumpy Frankie, also skillfully handles the physical complexities of the role, as she gracefully slips from bed and shyly clasps her robe around her to hide her nudity from her lover. Later, we see her protectively hugging him tightly after one particularly poignant revelation.

While Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (light of the moonlight) might not be a typical romantic comedy, it is the type of romance that makes you feel there is a connection out there for all of us — if we are only open enough.