The Next Stage Theatre Company will present a play that looks at the human need for connection and intimacy with its production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which opens Thursday in The Attic of The State Theatre.
Written by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally in 1987, the play was first performed off-Broadway that year at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Directed by John Hruschka, the two-character play features Caitlin Osborne as Frankie and Jason Zanitsch as Johnny.
“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” includes profanity, sexual situations and sexually-charged conversation that are integral to the play and may upset some theater-goers.
The play begins just as the title characters finish their first sexual encounter. Frankie and Johnny both work at the same restaurant, where she is a waitress and he is a cook.
“They are attracted to one another, they go on a date and they end up back at her place — all of that happens before the play begins,” Hruschka said. “Once the physical intimacy ends, the real intimacy has a chance to develop. We get to watch them really get to know each other.”
Frankie is very guarded, she has been hurt in the past, and she wants Johnny to leave so she can get on with her life. Johnny has a past as well, but he is in a desperate rush to connect, and to commit.
“Throughout the show, they are like magnets that attract and repel,” Hruschka said. “Slowly, they discover that they share a great deal, and by daybreak they seem to have developed a real affection for one another.”
As producing artistic director and co-founder of The Next Stage, Mary Skees believes the play is both specific to the two characters and universal.
“It takes audience members inside themselves, to where we all go when we are deciding whether to let someone, anyone, into our lives, with all the risks, fears and self-doubts,” she said. “We present an edited personal history; we oscillate between full disclosure and charm. We reveal and conceal ourselves, in flashes.”
A middle-aged, high school drop-out, Frankie is a waitress and a loner. Her life has not turned out the way she wanted it; her longest relationship has failed, and she has no family or close friends. In terms of the play, both characters are set up to be the other person’s obstacle.
“Johnny is coming at her like a stick of dynamite, and she is determined to be an immovable rock,” Osborne said. “She talks tough to hide a painful past, but what she really needs is to find a way to trust another human being again.”
Johnny is many things: a short order cook, an ex-con an autodidact with a host of Shakespeare quotes at hand, a dreamer and an exaggerator.
“Most of all though, he is a man desperately seeking hope — hope in the form of a true and genuine connection with another person,” Zanitsch said. “He’s desperate in that time is running out for him. Living in New York, being over 40, and working in a job below his aspirations, his choices are limited.”
Hruschka noted the adult themes and language in the play.
“They talk about sex, they swear, they are grown-ups and the play is about grown-ups,” Hruschka said. “Thirty years after it opened off-Broadway, we need to warn people that Frankie and Johnny is, in part, about sex. But sex isn’t the point of the play — neither is naughty language. The play is about two people who seem to be finding each other.”
“McNally manages to make sex profoundly unsexy, too, and I think that can make people uncomfortable,” Osborne said. “On the other hand, there’s enormous hopefulness in the play, and the characters are basically decent human beings. So, in the end, it feels good.”
Zanitsch thinks the play will bring laughs and tears, but more than that, a chance to see that moment when two people decide whether they want a relationship to become a relationship.
“This play is that two-hour gap after the first moment of magnetism, when these two people face their own insecurities and fears,” he said. “The audience will get the chance to see two actors setting aside all vanity to reveal two intimately human characters.”
IF YOU GO
- What: The Next Stage’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”
- When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Aug. 12 and Aug. 17-19 and 3 p.m. Aug. 13 and 20
- Where: The Attic of The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College
- Info: www.thestatetheatre.org