Terrence McNally is a playwright to whom I am drawn.
I think the reason for that is because he has an extraordinary talent for bringing the audience into the complex minds of his characters in a simple way. His characters are neurotic, self conscious dreamers, often with low self esteem, who are just looking for human connection; in other words, they are real people. And he has you connect with them in very profound ways. I think that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (For full effect, do yourself a favor and listen to Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy while reading this article.)
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the dialogue, my main problem I had with the play was it’s lack of story. It features two meaty, deep characters that would be dreams to play, but the story did not have a beginning, middle, and end. It was a snapshot of a moment in two peoples’ lives. This has come to be a popular method of storytelling, but not my favorite.
About the Author
Terrence McNally is known as one of the best and most influential playwrights of the 20th century. Originally hailing from Florida, he is a graduate of Columbia University in New York. His career has spanned over six decades and he is a recipient of many prestigious awards including an Emmy, Obies, and Tony Awards. He has written many plays, musicals, operas, and movies. He says that his goal with writing is to connect people, regardless of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
Why I Read
I saw a couple of actors do a scene that I enjoyed from this play in acting class, which inspired me to read the full play. I loved the scene I saw performed in class because it was written like a real conversation instead of some playwright’s idea of what a conversation should sound like. I connected to the story and I cared about the characters.
Also, there is a movie based on the play starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, but it is very different. The play is only two people in one location, but the movie expands; there are many more characters and other locations, showing the full events of the relationship.
About the Play
***No spoilers, necessarily, as there are no big spoilers in this play, but I do talk about events that transpired.***
The original cast featured Kathy Bates as Frankie and F. Murray Abraham as Johnny, with the voice of Dominic Cuskern as the radio announcer. Killer cast, if you ask me!
The entirety of the play takes place inside of Frankie’s apartment. She and Johnny work together at a restaurant – she as a waitress, he as a cook. He is a dreamer, with a zest for life. She is more cynical and wary.
The play starts off with the two of them just having slept together.
Since she is not one to open her heart up easily, it was just a one-night stand for her. However, since Johnny is more of a romantic, the night meant a lot to him, and he is on a mission to get her to fall in love with him. She obviously tries to deny her feelings for him, stuffing them down with copious amounts of food and oodles of sarcastic wit, but she never is able to diminish his zeal. He calls the classical radio station that she has on and asks them to play the most beautiful song in the world. The DJ ends up playing Clair De Lune (hard to argue with that, am I right?)
She does not want to let Johnny in, yet she is secretly enthralled by him.
She acts annoyed at his insistence on being imaginative, a dreamer, a romantic, and is constantly demanding that he leaves; but, we all know that she actually wants him to stay. The dichotomy between the two characters allows for natural conflict. The play feels like real life – like two actual people who are talking to each other. I believed that this could be happening to my next door neighbors. Such simple, yet engaging scenes and dialogue kept me enthralled.
Clair De Lune was such an appropriate song for this play; yes, it is beautiful, and Debussy is French, which automatically makes the song romantic. It is also full of passion; at first withheld, contained, almost masquerading as delicate. Then the passion gusts forth in powerful, dissonant bursts. The dynamics tell a very similar story in the song as in the play. And, the fact that McNally chose a classical song is metaphoric of the timeless nature of their relationship.
She’s a no-nonsense type. She is not very trusting and holds her cards very close to her chest, not allowing anyone to know much about her. She especially holds her artistic ambitions to be an actress very tightly. She wants a realistic career, and therefore has destined herself to play it safe in life, with a safe waitressing job that she’ll probably never voluntarily leave, a safe apartment that’s not too shabby but not too extravagant, and the safety of her distant relationships. A classic character with a fear of abandonment, who pretends to not want human connection, but craves it deep, deep down. After all, we all need human connection.
As I keep repeating, he’s a romantic dreamer. He falls in love with her so fast, and the more she resists, the more infatuated he gets. He has spent some time in prison, and that’s why he works as a cook at the restaurant. He is not shy about his need for human connection. For him, sex is more than just a one-night stand; it’s a means for the most intimate kind of connection, which is what he unashamedly craves. He wants to woo her, but eschews her practical spirit; he insists on wooing her his way, because his way is the way that he believes in. He is passionate about having her embrace the fact that we all need someone, despite her stubbornness.
Let me know if you’ve read this play and what your opinions are!
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My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am an actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.