Sex and Meat Loaf
Desires of all kinds are laid bare beautifully in Everyman’s Frankie and Johnny
It’s 3 a.m., and both acts of Terrence McNally’s play take place in this cramped efficiency before the sun appears at 5. Over those two hours, played in real time, Frankie and her co-worker Johnny argue about what just happened: Was it just a friendly first-date fuck or was it the start of something more important?
Frankie, a jittery redhead played by Deborah Hazlett, sees it as just a one-night stand; it was nice, she says, but now it’s time for him to go. But Johnny, the burly, bearded cook played by Zachary Knower, doesn’t want to leave; he wants to convince Frankie that they are a couple of destiny, lovers meant to spend their lives together. With unsettling intensity, he praises her breasts, her waitressing skills, her hair, her pudenda, her meat-loaf sandwiches. With a fluttery wave of her hands, she deflects every compliment, every possibility of a future.
This was all amusing when the 1987 play was adapted by Garry Marshall for his 1991 film Frankie and Johnny, but it’s far more effective in the theater, especially in a small, intimate space like Everyman, where the sex, the nudity, the desire, the fear, and even the meat loaf are right in our faces. Director Vincent Lancisi and his two actors keep everything so fresh that it really does seem like a first date where two people are still feeling each other out.
First dates are notoriously awkward, and this one is more awkward than most—what with Johnny declaring romantically, “I want you to notice how we’re connecting; my hand is flowing into yours, my eyes are trying to see inside yours,” and Frankie replying, “That’s not connecting; that’s holding and staring.” McNally gets a lot of laughs out of the situation—there’s an interlude of impotence, a discussion of oral sex, and a repeating riff on the radio’s classical music—but he also locates the darker undercurrent.
When Frankie looks out her window, she can see one couple in the building across the way where the husband and wife never talk to one another and a second couple where the husband punches the wife around. She’s already had some bad relationships, so she has reason to be wary, to wonder whether Johnny is “very intense or very crazy.” Johnny has his own past—an ex-wife and a stretch in jail—that explains his desperation to grab at any romantic straw he can.
Zachary Knower is the son of longtime Baltimore actress Rosemary Knower, but this is his first appearance in his hometown since high school. He’s a bit young for the 47-year-old role, but he lives up to McNally’s description of Johnny as “nervy and insistent.” He comes on so strong that you understand Frankie’s reluctance, but he also has an undeniable charm that explains her willingness to at least consider his overtures.
The 40-year-old blue-collar Frankie is different from the sophisticates that Hazlett usually plays at Everyman, but this may well be her finest performance. From her New Yawk accent to her tendency to flinch at anyone’s attempt to get close to her, Hazlett disappears into the character. When Frankie voices embarrassment about her sexual appetites, Hazlett convinces us that both the modesty and lust are real.
Both Hazlett and Knower are so at ease with their full-frontal nudity in the first scene—they are clearly getting over sex rather than getting ready for it—that it seems like no big deal; it only adds to the naturalism of the production. Even the elderly audience at the first Saturday matinée seemed to take the nudity in stride. The design team reinforces that naturalism with an apartment that looks truly lived in, from the tacky afghan on the sofa bed and the magnets on the refrigerator to the ironing board propped up in the corner. This has been a disappointing season for Equity theater in Baltimore, but Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune provides the season’s highlight in the ninth inning.
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