Dallas — Murder is a subject that garner’s the public’s attention, especially when the murderess is female. One such story in our popular lore is that of ill-fated lovers, Frankie and Johnny, though Johnny is not the man’s real name in any of the actual murders that inspire this tale. There are songs about Frankie and Johnny that date back to the late 19th century, telling of how Frankie murdered her lover upon finding him in flagrante delicto with another woman. This tale inspired writers who took parts of the story and transferred it into other genres. Some used the entire news story while others like Terrence McNally, focused on the relationship between the two characters.
Director Stefany Cambra’s vision of McNally’s play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, opens L.I.P. Service Productions’ 2017 season and is onstage at Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts in Northwest Dallas.
There is no murder in McNally’s story. No one dies. He instead isolates these characters, taking them out of the lore, and explores who they were at the moment their relationship began.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was written during the late ’80s. The setting is in Frankie’s (Jenny Tucker) small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. She is having sex with Johnny (Jason Leyva), a short order cook at the restaurant where she is a waitress. They have been eyeing each other at work, but this is their first date. The sex was satisfying as one-night stands go but the conversation that follows clearly shows that they are very different personalities. Johnny is open, imaginative and persistent while Frankie is closed, jaded, and distrusting. He talks too much, she puts up walls. Johnny is guided by his gut and his gut is telling him that this night with Frankie is that once in a lifetime chance for real love and happiness. She thinks he is playing weird games and having fun at her expense. The back and forth between the two lasts all night and into the next morning.
This coupling of Tucker and Leyva works. On the road to Johnny’s authenticity Leyva careens from tiring to needy to keeper. Leyva’s character is so big that it would be easy for Frankie to get lost or minimized, but Tucker holds and punches Frankie forward. During an interview with Mike Wood of Manhattan Theatre Club, McNally said this is the most poetic and un-naturalistic play he has ever written. Tucker and Leyva seem to get that. They succeed in making the ridiculous believable.
The body and nudity are important in the play but Cambra has decided to forego that in this interpretation. The absence of the body affects the audience’s response to the characters and their story. In the scene where Johnny asks Frankie to again show him her genitalia in the light, the audience response was with light laughter. This is a starkly tender scene because of the age of the characters which the body reveals. A lot is revealed about the characters through the presence of the body in this scene. For those familiar with the script, the absence of the body will register.
The production values are filled with subtleties, especially in Branson White’s lighting. The set design (Ben Hall and Jason Leyva) is open and accessible from every vantage point. A lot of what we learn about Frankie comes from the props (Barrie Alguire, Jenny Tucker, Stefany Cambra) and set dressing which have been thoughtfully assembled. The sound design is effective.
Debussy composed Clair de Lune (moonlight) which is based on a poem “Moonlight” by Paul Verlaine, and is part of the Suite Bergamasque. The first stanza translates from the French as:
Your soul is a landscape of fantasy
Charmed by the masks and bergamasks that rise
To dance and play the lute and seem to be
Sad underneath a fanciful disguise.
This is the play. And this is reflected quite nicely through the performances by Tucker and Leyva.