Ensemble ends an era with McNally romantic comedy

 Dee Ann Newkirk as Frankie and Rick Gifford as Johnny. PHOTOS COURTESY DAVID BAZEMORE

Dee Ann Newkirk as Frankie and Rick Gifford as Johnny.

Nearly a quarter-century old, Terrence McNally’s play “Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune” has several difficulties for any director that don’t seem so prevalent now in modern theater. Two people in a room, with action that happens in real time, going from a one-night stand to something that looks like full-time commitment. And though it joshes with the ideas of pre-1940s romance, it’s unabashedly romantic, just unglamorous. It presents us with earnestness and asks us to take it seriously.

Fortunately Saundra McClain is up for this task and has delivered a fitting curtain call for the Ensemble’s most recent season and for the Alhecama Theater. The next production will open in the Victoria, so regardless of this review, realize this is your final chance to experience the cozy ambience of the Alhecama.

“Frankie & Johnny” does well in this environment. The set is Hell’s Kitchen in New York City (Frankie disagrees: it’s in Clinton), a tiny studio apartment with a fold-out sofa, a kitchen, and fabulous views of couples across the street, one a miserable, wordless old couple and the other of a violent abusive relationship. (Hey but at the right moment both the sun and the moon rise between the concrete caverns of Manhattan if you stay up late at night.)

Those couples could be stand-ins for the fear of commitment that middle-aged waitress Frankie (Dee Ann Newkirk) has internalized after a failed and violent relationship. She fears attracting more abuse just as much as she fears a loveless life and loss of the little agency she has.

But she’s made her bed and now someone else is lying in it: Johnny (Rick Gifford), the short order cook from her workplace. They’ve been dancing around their attraction for weeks. She thinks his wrists are sexy. He thinks Frankie is the woman he’s going to marry. And what she thinks is a stress-relieving one night stand is for Johnny the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

This is the difficult work for both actors. In anybody else’s apartment, these lamentations of love, of future marriage and children would quickly sour any post-sex glow and instead turn into a one-way ticket into a cab. And yes, there is a bit of that in Frankie’s response. But Johnny, who’s got a pocketful of Shakespeare quotes, an almost childish attitude and a face stuck somewhere between Michael Madsen and DeNiro, walks that line between charm and a restraining order.

Frankie too has be walk a line between realistic boundary setting and the realization that Johnny is zeroing in on the void in her life. This is an opportunity. This is where both fallen souls can save each other.

Dee Ann Newkirk is unrecognizable from her last appearance at Ensemble, when she played the refined Tekla in Strindberg’s “Creditors” last year. Here’s she literally let her hair down, both actors spending most of their time undressed or in robes, contemplating each other’s flesh as well as their own. Ms. Newkirk has to turn emotions on a dime, and Terrance McNally doesn’t make it easy, but she manages it. Sometimes it feels like the play rushes itself, knowingly, aware of the compacting of time.

Rick Gifford, new to Ensemble, embodies Johnny and doesn’t have to do as much emotional dancing. His character is an arrow aimed for a heart and nothing will deflect it. Mr. Gifford’s job is to remain likable, empathetic, and not come off as a creepy, delusional stalker. Given the exceptions inherent in theater, the actor makes it work.

But do successful couples form this way anymore? Can they? It feels like several generations ago this was possible and normalized. Mr. McNally’s play, set in 1987, now looks like the ending of an era.

Saundra McClain’s direction is unfussy, letting the actors move about the apartment in a natural way, setting and resetting intimate space, improvising places to sit — the low coffee table is a favorite — and doing the dance of men and women maybe, kind of, possibly in love.

The set, by Charles Erven, strikes out for realism and manages it well. The apartment block glimpsed out the window, the kitchenette, the tiny television, the beaded curtains in front of the walk-in closet — it would be interesting to know how much input director McClain, who lived in Hell’s Kitchen when the play premiered, contributed. The set itself could probably be rented out for an easy five grand in today’s Manhattan (“The fourth wall needs a little work,” says the landlord.)

In the end, this reviewer understood why Frankie and Johnny give it a go (spoiler alert!), but was never convinced. That’s not a knock at the actors, but the characters, especially Johnny, so overbearing, intense, and narrow of focus that one expected Frankie to high tail it to the fire escape. As the expression goes, sometimes this reviewer just needs his space.

When: Through June 3. 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. 4 p.m. matinee June 15.
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara Street
Cost: $40-$65
Information: 965-5400 or www.ensembletheatre.com

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