By Annette Hinkle
New York is a city of 8.3 million people — and connecting with just one of them can often seem impossible, making it feel like the loneliest place on earth.
The need for human connection and the desperation that can follow when one lost soul feels certain he’s met his match is at the heart of “Frankie & Johnny in the Clair De Lune,” Terrence McNally’s intimate portrait of love in the wake of loss and its associated damage.
The play is currently being staged by HITFest/Naked Stage at the Bridgehampton Community House where producers Peter Zablonsky and Josh Perl (who also directs) are presenting it in black box style. It’s an approach that has been used in previous productions and, once again, is realized here to spectacular effect.
The play tells the story of Frankie (Rachel Feldman), a waitress, and her co-worker Johnny (Seth Hendricks), a short order cook — two 40-something people who fall casually into bed after a night on the town.
For Frankie, casual is the operative word. She has life figured out. Her tiny apartment on the Upper West Side, where the action takes place, is well-suited for her singular lifestyle and once she and Johnny have finished their bedroom business, she is eager for him to hit the road so she can indulge in a little ice cream and TV.
But Johnny has other plans. He’s certain something deeply meaningful has transpired between the two which is destined to take them far beyond the realm of one night stand. He refuses to budge until Frankie sees the light.
Frankie can’t believe Johnny is for real, given how overly effusive he is about his belief in the power of destiny. There are moments when she lets her guard down and seems poised to take him in, but he continually pushes the point, going over the edge to the realm of discomfort. The wounds Frankie has suffered at the hands of a previous lover have left her scarred, hardened and unable to believe in the kind of love Johnny is selling. At times she is certain he is mocking her and even starts wondering if she’s mistakenly brought home a psychopath.
Of course, Johnny has his own baggage — mainly a history of alcohol abuse, a failed marriage and two children now being raised by another man. The question is, can two middle-aged people with that kind of damage indulge passion and bring to fruition the optimism required of a love born through destiny?
The back and forth between Frankie and Johnny is intense, emotionally charged and extremely intimate. McNally’s masterful script takes the audience on a dynamic roller-coaster ride through a tunnel of love, and before the night is over, Frankie will be forced to re-evaluate everything she thought she knew about herself, her life and a short-order cook.
Serenading the lovers in their tentative late-night dance is a classical music radio station that sees them through the darkest hours. The irrepressible Johnny even phones the DJ to implore him to play the most romantic music in the world just for the two of them. That’s where the title of McNally’s play comes in — Claude Debussy’s lovely “Clair De Lune” (which is romantic indeed).
Rachel Feldman is amazingly at ease in the role of Frankie. We can feel her discomfort whenever Johnny starts in on his emotional appeal. Her performance is a nice counterpoint to that of Hendricks, whose intensity borders on manic at points — we understand why this guy makes her nervous, yet there’s something so endearing about his honesty and passion, you really don’t want to see him walk out of the door and Frankie’s life.
Making the play even more intimate is the black box style in which it’s presented. The confines of Frankie’s small apartment are delineated by a simple metal framework, as realized by production designer Peter-Tolin Baker. The audience is seated on all sides of the box-like structure and the effect is voyeuristic indeed, with some scenes happening at the edge of the framework while audience members peer into the action mere inches from the two actors.
The effect can’t be understated, especially in the small ways that reflect real life. When Frankie sprays her hair, the scent of the spray fills the space. She also makes delicious looking meatloaf sandwiches for the two of them and at one point Johnny whips up a real omelet in the tiny space (don’t go to this play hungry). The intimacy focuses the audience’s attention in a way that’s impossible in a larger theatrical space. You can’t let your mind wander when you are are so tied to the action and the emotion.
And when it comes to emotion, this play is heartbreaking in many ways. We pity the grasping and longing of Johnny, who feels passionately yet is seemingly incapable of self-editing. Then there’s the pragmatic Frankie, who wants desperately to let Johnny in, but retreats again and again due to his tendency to lunge forward when he senses a crack in her hard exterior — he’s professing a love and passion she is far too fragile to explore.
While these two wounded souls may be tragic as individuals, their growing love is inspiring and might leave those in long-term relationships longing to recapture the fervor of the tentative dance that marks new love.
Yes, you pity the grasping nature of Frankie and Johnny’s fledging relationship, but you may also leave the theater craving the passion which comes only when two people may or may not be falling in love. It’s a fleeting moment, and precious few of these emotionally charged opportunities come along in life.
So enjoy this one while you can.
“Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune” at the Bridgehampton Community House, 2357 Montauk Highway, is presented by HITFest/The Naked Stage. Performances are Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. through October 26, 2013. For tickets, visit fandj.eventbrite.com or call 525-2995.