note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Theatergoers who saw the 1991 movie version of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, and expect to see the same thing are in for a big surprise.
At New Repertory Theatre’s intimate version, award-winning co-stars Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton bare all to make this play as down-to-earth (maybe earthy is a better term) and realistic as possible. This husband- and-wife team that has continuously delighted Boston and area audiences has surpassed themselves. As Frankie and Johnny, they transition from two ordinary, lonely people locked in abysmal existences to an extraordinary, climactic trek into love, hope and romance - all in one night.
McNally has an uncanny ability to make his blue collar characters interesting. In this case, Frankie and Johnny are meant to be together. You get that from the get-go. Just their very names foretell their future together. And the coincidences the two share are amazing. Although he’s a short order cook and she’s a waitress at the same restaurant in New York, they discover they’re both originally from Allentown, Pa., were abandoned by their mothers, and had higher aspirations that didn’t materialize. Frankie wanted to be an actress after she appeared in her high school play, but she didn’t finish high school. She went to Los Angeles anyway, and realized her dream was untenable.
Johnny, who loves to read Shakespeare and quotes the bard as frequently as he can, attended college but dropped out in his second year. As the evening wears on, they realize their differences, too. Johnny is in love with Frankie. She’s not sure. She’s guarded, standoffish, suspicious of his ardor. He’s nervy, passionate, persistent, courageous. She wants him to leave. He wants to never leave her. It’s their last chance for happiness, he tells her. She’s not so sure she has any chances left for happiness. He wants children. She can’t have them, she announces sourly. And so the sparring continues, throughout the night, as her hunger for food increases, and his hunger for her love intensifies to a touching climax. He calls an all-night music radio station, requesting beautiful music while declaring his love for Frankie over the air. Moved by Johnny’s sincerity, the DJ fulfills his request. We’re touched too, as he reveals the rest of his story.
Gottlieb and Pemberton’s rhythmic pace holds the audience rapt, in the palm of their hands. A 15-minute intermission doesn’t disrupt the couple’s adept mood changes and charisma.
We want them to succeed. We cheer Johnny on, realizing neither he nor Frankie is a bargain, but together, we know they can make it. Her eventual hopes of returning to school and becoming a teacher, and his hopes of loving her and shaking off his abject loneliness loom on the brightening sunshine that floods Frankie’s room. Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who has done a splendid job here, called his experience working with Gottlieb, Pemberton, and New Repertory rewarding. Eric D. Diaz’s functional set and Chris Brusberg’s thoughtful lighting, especially during nude scenes, add credence and poignancy to this heartwarming romantic comedy.
BOX INFO: Two-act play, written by Terrence McNally, starring husband-wife Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton, appearing through Dec. 19, at the New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Black Box Theater, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. The show contains mature theme and nudity. Performances are Sundays at 2 p.m., also Dec. 12, and Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Dec. 8 p.m.; Dec. 11, 18, at 3,8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Check for talkbacks with the cast. Tickets are $30; seniors, $5 off; student rush, $11. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.