Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Terrence McNally
Sound Theatre

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Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts (or lovers) in the folk song made famous by Johnny Cash and translated into a film starring Elvis Presley. In those versions, the no-good gambling man eventually got the bullet from the lady.

The second production in London's newest theatre, the barely-converted Sound night club, has a long pedigree. Terrence McNally's two-hander, influenced by the same story, became a successful film with a serious budget. Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall recruited Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino as the middle-aged couple who declare themselves to be less than attractive but with that pair he had to be kidding.

The original 1987 off-Broadway pairing was Kathy Bates (for whom the part of Frankie was reputedly written) and F.Murray Abraham. More recently, Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci became the waitress and Shakespeare-quoting short order cook in a Broadway revival.

James Phillips has cast Suzan Sylvester as Frankie, a woman afraid to love after an unhappy childhood and a life full of disappointments. The would-be actress, wife and mother has achieved none of these ambitions. She is 40 and lives in a tiny Hell's Kitchen apartment, cleverly designed for the small space by David Farley.

The play opens with her post-coital banter with John Sharion's bull-like, shaven-headed Johnny. Their lives have followed identical patterns from an upbringing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the pair may well be made for each other.

Oddly, it is the man who is the romantic. Johnny already desires a life together half-way through a one-night stand, while his lady would be happy for occasional, great sex and nothing more.

The play has a musical structure, brought out by the sensitive selection of classical accompaniments that reflect mood well. It commences with Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations and encompasses Wagner, Shostakovich and "our song", by Debussy.

Terrence McNally is a very accomplished writer and in the space of a couple of hours paints detailed portraits not only of two lonely, damaged people but also of the mid-eighties New York in which they live.

Miss Sylvester captures the fear, passion and frustration of a woman who cannot let herself go, while Sharion conveys the overblown confidence of a man who expects to get what he wants but must be used to the disappointments that failure in life and love so often bring.

The good news for romantics is that thanks to the efforts of the dullest of DJs, the pair a little unexpectedly end up with toothbrushes and smiles at dawn rather than guns. Following a bittersweet, moonlit night, the future looks as sunny as the morning after.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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