I used to think that Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was a foolproof play, as long as the actors were capable, but now I'm not so sure. Tom Nowicki and Tonia M. Jackson are perfectly fine in Terrence McNally's oddball love story about an older-but-wiser match between a short-order cook and a waitress in New York, directed by Bari Newport at American Stage.
Maybe McNally's play doesn't hold up to repeated viewings (I've seen other productions plus the movie with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer), or maybe its incessant pop culture banter from the '80s has dated, but I left the matinee Sunday feeling just mildly diverted by the long, claustrophobic night's journey into moonlit early morning.
It starts with the pair loudly making love in the dark in Frankie's cramped apartment, and ends with them brushing their teeth, a typical down-to-earth McNally touch. One moment his characters are discussing Shakespeare, the next they're munching cold meatloaf sandwiches prepared just so, with no ketchup for Johnny. The performances of Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner in Prizzi's Honor are given a brisk critique in one of many witty exchanges. Sometimes Frankie and Johnny sound more like a faculty couple at Columbia than workers at a Manhattan diner.
McNally is a fussy sort of playwright. All the clever remarks peppered through Frankie and Johnny tend to overwhelm the actors' relationship, which felt short on chemistry between Nowicki and Jackson. It's not just any delicatessen that he won't go into because its lights are too bright, it's one on Madison Avenue and 28th Street. She could never fall for someone who says "Pardon my French" all the time. These cranky little quirks are amusing but don't really add much to an understanding of the characters.
Leaving nothing to chance, the script's prop, costume and set dressing list runs seven pages, right down to the clock on top of three paperbacks: Hotel, Jaws, Valley of the Dolls. Tom Hansen's set is a detailed replica of a walk-up tenement, dominated by the sofa bed where Frankie and Johnny spend a lot of their time.
Johnny is the bravura role, a know-it-all in boxer shorts, the kind of guy that talk radio was invented for. Nowicki plays him more as a sweet eccentric than nut job. Impressively, he whips up a Western omelet that fills the theater with a delicious smell.
Frankie is a counter-puncher to Johnny's flights of intense rhetoric. Jackson jokingly hints at the potential danger in what could, after all, just be a one-night stand — "This is worse than Looking for Mr. Goodbar" — but her tale of abuse (by an ex-boyfriend) isn't convincing.
The play's offstage third character is the voice (David Jenkins) of an FM radio announcer who takes a request from Johnny to play "the most beautiful music ever written," Debussy's Clair de Lune.
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MAD Theatre is one of the more enterprising companies in the bay area. Its latest production is William Finn's musical, A New Brain, opening Thursday and playing through June 19 at the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) wrote many of the songs in his 1998 show after having brain surgery. $20. (813) 229-7827; strazcenter.org.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.