Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune
Casting Spells Productions
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama's Mother, Emilie/Eurydice, The Night Alive and Sister Act


Shanan Custer and Charles Hubbell
Photo by James Detmar
Terrence McNally's play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune is a perceptive study of the struggle between fear of commitment and fear of being alone. These fears often push relationships off the rails; they must arrive at a peaceful coexistence for love to blossom. That the play is nearly thirty years old does not diminish the universal truths it contains. Like the two lonely people who make up the cast, it is in turns funny, sad, and heart-warming.

Frankie is a waitress and Johnny a cook at the same Manhattan diner. After several weeks of eyeing one another, they have just been on their first date—dinner, a movie, and ecstatic love-making in Frankie's apartment. At least it sounds ecstatic, as the play opens in darkness to heavy breathing, intense moans, and jubilant exclamations as Frankie and Johnny each come to orgasm. A light is turned on, and we see it is 2:53 AM. Frankie says "I wish I still smoked," leading Johnny to laugh—a laugh that goes on uncontrollably, and which infects Johnny as they both go off on a jag of laughter that lasts for several minutes. For the moment, these two have given up control of their bodies and minds.

The expected banter of regaining composure takes place, but it is soon clear that Frankie and Johnny have very different ideas about what happens next. Frankie wants Johnny to leave, allowing her to return to the solitary existence she has cultivated. She is not necessarily happy with that life, but she knows how to manage it. Johnny wants to stay, not only for the evening, but forever. He is certain that he and Frankie are destined for one another, in fact had that in mind even at the onset of their evening.

The remainder of the play, spread over two acts, is the push and pull between them, as Johnny tries valiantly to chip away at Frankie's resistance to love, and Frankie becomes increasingly convinced that Johnny is a needy lunatic. At one point, Johnny's repeated refusals to leave because there might never be another chance for them prompts Frankie to say, "This is worse than ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar'." They discover remarkable coincidences in their families, their childhoods, and the ordeals they endured growing up and as adults. For Johnny this is evidence that their destinies are entwined, but not for Frankie, who is unprepared to leap from one night of sex—albeit, great sex—to a lifetime commitment.

In the course of the evening, Johnny calls the classical radio station that had been playing, and asks the program announcer to pick out the most beautiful piece of music ever written, to honor the aborning love of Frankie and Johnny. The announcer scoffs at the names, certain that they are pulling his leg, but intrigued by the request, selects the Debussy work that gives the play its title. And truly, it does cast a blanket of loveliness over the fraught evening.

Casting is certainly a key to making this delicate exchange work, and Casting Spells has made two wise choices. Shanan Custer, who plays Frankie, is known to me for her work in comedy. She certainly carries off the comical bits in her role with terrific timing and line reading, but also brings a great degree of insecurity and suspicion to Frankie, along with sheer exhaustion. She makes us believe that she wants what Johnny is offering, but after years of false starts and disappointments is too tired to take down the defenses she has erected. Even when she is most assertive in telling Johnny to leave, declaring him a crackpot, she reveals a light within that wishes it were otherwise.

As Johnny, Charles Hubble is sensational. His lanky body and hangdog looks perfectly suit the character, and his quick, angular movements attest to the nervous energy bottled inside. He is as sincere as a puppy dog, prone to quick anger but also very quick to forgive. His adoring gazes at Frankie convey both deeply felt affection and a degree of creepiness. He wants all this and does not hold back anything in saying so. His tendency to over-verbalize might be due to nerves, but also because he truly has so much feeling that needs to make itself known.

James Detmar directs his two actors as players in a game, alternately having the advantage and being on the defense. He presents both as deeply good, deeply wounded people, so that it becomes impossible to take sides. He also makes good use of the full space on the Theater Garage's long, narrow stage, aided by the terrific set Jane Ryan has designed, decorated in circa 1980s thrift, with a fully functioning kitchen, put to good use throughout the play, and a window that allows them to look out on the lives of their neighbors, and on the light of the moon. Grant Merges' lighting design gently carries us through the wee hours to the dawn of a new day.

It may be interesting to consider that Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune arrived in 1987, first performed in New York City, during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. As a gay playwright, McNally undoubtedly had already lost friends to the disease, and would have been well aware of its mounting toll. Though the story of a man and woman, Frankie and Johnny could as easily be two men, and the specter of AIDS could be impetus for both a fear of commitment and a fear of remaining uncommitted.

That is not to suggest this is a play about AIDS, only to point out the durability of its message. We have every reason to be afraid of love, to fight it off tooth and nail, and we have every reason to seek it desperately, above all else. I loved Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, especially in the hands of these two well-suited actors. It makes it safe to address the dark corners of our hearts because it also casts a loving light upon them.

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, produced by Casting Spells Productions, runs through December 6th, 2015 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $28.00. For tickets go to castingspellsproductions.com.

Written by Terrence McNally; Director: James Detmar; Set Design: Jane Ryan; Lighting Designer: Grant Merges; Technical Director: Darren Hensel; Stage manager: Jessie Storovich; Assistant Stage Manager: David Loose; Properties: Sid Korpi; Fight Coordinator: Annie Enneking; Producers for Casting Spells Productions: Mark Bergren, James Detmar and Michael Shann.

Cast: Shanan Custer (Frankie), Charles Hubbell (Johnny), Eric Webster (voice of radio announcer)


- Arthur Dorman


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