December 8, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 40°F


Review: ‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune’ creates an intimate setting in the Kitchen Theatre

Dinner, a movie, milkshakes and sex all go well for a waitress and a cook on a first date. But their night takes a complicated turn once they begin to reveal more about themselves. Inspired by the century-old American folk song “Frankie and Johnny,” Terrence McNally’s exquisite play showing at the Kitchen Theatre gives audiences a look into the tumultuous afterglow of two people possibly falling in love.

Frankie (Rachel Burttram) is a 39-year-old wannabe actress with a history of abuse and disappointment. Johnny (Brandon Morris) is a determined, talkative divorced father and former forgery criminal in his forties.

At the play’s start, they are two unfulfilled, unmarried adults lying in bed together at 3 a.m. They find themselves accidentally listening to a classical music radio station and both enjoy Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” movement from his Suite Bergamasque. However, once they start to discover a long list of things they have in common, Johnny decides he wants them to get serious right away. The story follows their turbulent conversation as well as their walking, running and lying around the apartment, in real time, from that moment until dawn.

Morris portrays Johnny as a dynamic, likable character with great comedic timing. However, Burttram excels beyond the Kitchen’s consistently high standard of acting. Her portrayal of Frankie is understated, yet whenever she varies between troubled and caring, these moods and the accompanying actions appear totally natural. Together, this powerful duo keeps the audience intrigued, excited and amused for nearly two and a half hours. At times, watching the show feels like an improper intrusion into their intimate night, but these actors keep it accessible and fast-paced enough that it’s easy to keep watching.

Director Rachel Lampert is skilled in staging a difficult romance. Frankie and Johnny have little chemistry beyond sex, but Lampert succeeds in keeping the mysterious element, which consists of them talking about their vague connection. She also utilizes pacing spectacularly, marking clear differences between moments of anger, revelation and sincerity. Lampert’s inclusion of miniscule realistic actions often forgotten in certain scenes, like Frankie’s attention to spreading ketchup, contributes greatly to the show’s believability, as did the spontaneity of their few physical interactions. The long periods of nudity become a non-issue, merely an aspect of their evening, thanks to Lampert’s careful staging.

Set in 1987, the show is filled with epochal cultural references. McNally’s well-written “romantic fairy tale,” as he called it, is beautiful in its chaos and sublime in its possibilities. His clever dialogue jerks audiences between laughter, horror and hope, reminding them that people are often more than they seem. This constant turbulence in his script creates inspired entropy in what first seemed a plain, ordered world. The way Frankie and Johnny feel at this moment in their lives — lost, uninspired, depressed and burned out — is a very relatable element.

Tiny furniture, appliances and kitchenware from the ’80s clutter Frankie’s downtown New York apartment. The large amount of small items filling the Kitchen’s intimate stage gives it a slightly claustrophobic feeling. This set design by Kent Lynn Goetz quickly establishes the play’s location, era and social strata, while adding to Frankie’s caged-in frame of mind. The dynamic lighting by Tyler Perry ’12 supports the changing realities of the characters’ interactions, reflecting their intimacy in depth, scope and color.

The Kitchen’s striking production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” serves not only as a peculiar tale about two lost souls, but also as a mirror for concerns about long-term love and navigating life.