AISLE SAY Berkshires


by Terrence McNally
Directed by Karen Allen
Starring Angel Desai and Darren Pettie

at Berkshire Theatre Group – Fitzpatrick Main Stage until August 22

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg



Frankie (Angel Desai) is a waitress at a local diner in New York.  Johnny (Darren Pettie) is a short-order cook at the same diner, newly hired. The play bearing their names opens in the dark. We don’t see them for a minute or two, but we hear the sounds of their lovemaking and it’s intense. We know nothing of them beyond the fact that they can connect and enjoy each other sexually.
Lights up, and we see the couple as they launch into a conversation that takes us through two hours, including intermission. There is little narrative in Terrence McNally’s play. What there is, and there is a great deal, is a debate about the possibility of one human being loving and being loved by another. Frankie is cynical about anything beyond a casual and limited physical interaction. Johnny refuses to accept her arguments and insists that people can connect – he punctuates his certainty as he asserts that he and Frankie are meant to be together and failing to seize their moment will lead to future loneliness and isolation.
McNally’s writing has often followed people who, though lonely and isolated, strive to connect with others. His stories deal with the emotional turmoil resulting from incidents earlier in characters’ lives, incidents that too often are revealed in monologues that provide background but fail to ignite onstage lives. “Frankie and Johnny…” was written and produced in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and though the subject is never discussed or referred to, the specter of desolation and hopelessness pervades the apartment in which the play is set. Frankie tells Johnny that she depended on meaningless sexual encounters with relative strangers, but even that has led nowhere, or as she says, “I don’t know about you but I get so sick and tired of living this way, that we’re gonna die from each other.”
The production at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage (running until August 22) is handsomely designed by John McDermott and carefully calibrated by Karen Allen, the director. Both Desai and Pettie understand the balance between deep melancholy and requisite humour that sustains any individual, and certainly any relationship. Yet the strength of their chemistry exposes the thinness of the writing. To be sure, there is dialogue that resonates with anyone who has ever known the tension of whether or not to commit to another, whether or not to walk away before there is a risk of being abandoned. That said, it seems to me that if the play were being written today (its premiere was in 1987) it might be a 90-minute intermissionless production. McNally’s passion is evident, but his characters’ repetitions deflate rather than heighten the drama. In exchange after exchange, Frankie tells Johnny to leave her home and he refuses. It’s essential for him to refuse, of course, but the pattern finally serves only to reveal Frankie as a device rather than a fully fleshed human.
Additionally, McNally employs the device of a disembodied radio DJ that further distances the play from reality. The reliance on the heard-but-unseen speaker is patently false, especially during a climactic scene in which Johnny is meant to be speaking to him on the phone. The moment is purely theatrical but not credible. And the subsequent radio voice-overs only remind us that the playwright is imposing himself where he would be better to allow the characters the space they deserve to find their own way forward.
“Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune” is among the finer recent productions at the BTG – apart from its textual issues, the production is well worth your time.        
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