Review: “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” at The Pear Theatre (***)

by Otto Coelho

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

I once asked a very dear friend of mine and his wife how they met. I wanted to know because I thought I’d find out the secret to a happy relationship, as they seemed so good together. They said they met while working together on a play in Los Angeles, became affectionate at the closing night party, and afterward went back to his place. At this point, she took over the explanation and said that her intention was a night of “sexy time,” and nothing more—certainly not a relationship. He, however, changed her mind when she awakened the next morning to the smell of bacon cooking and him asking if she preferred a two or three egg omelet. She was intrigued at that point, if not completely hooked. I immediately started paying more attention to The Food Network.

The ifs and hows at the beginning of relationships are at the center of the Terrance McNally two-hander “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” staged at Mountain View’s Pear Theatre. Waitress Frankie is only looking for a one night stand, while short order cook Johnny is holding out for something more meaningful. The Pear Theatre stages this show with two casts, as an insurance policy due to Covid—not a bad idea, considering the small theatre shows that have had to close due to recent outbreaks. 

Terrance McNally crafted a complex character in Frankie, and Kristin Walter handles her mercurial nature wonderfully. It’s easy for an audience to lose patience with Frankie, especially. We’re not certain where she stands on the relationship question and we’re not certain why she goes back and forth so much. Though small of stature, Walter is a powerhouse of an actress. When she demands that Johnny leave, you get the idea that she could throw him bodily out of her apartment, lock the door, and crack open a beer to reward herself. This is not to say she’s not capable of great vulnerability and tenderness. She is. Walter’s Frankie is like an onion with very tough layers. She handles the different sides of Frankie’s character with excellence, passion, and nuance.

Mr. McNally has also set a bit of a trap in Johnny’s optimism.  It’s easy to fall into an “always look at the bright side” energy. Sean Purcell avoids this trap.  What I appreciate most about Purcell’s performance is  he isn’t afraid to show us the darker depths of Johnny’s personality. He’s not gushingly positive. This Johnny knows that what he wants takes work, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and go for it one more time. 

Director Troy Johnson leads with a steady hand, yet allows the actors to make their own discoveries. Louis Stone-Collogne’s set is terrific, and Aya Matsutomo’s lighting is gorgeous. Pati Bristow’s costumes work wonderfully, and David L. Hobbs’ sound design is quite effective. All in all, the work of the technical team created a great environment for the actors to work in.

NOTE: I was also able to see the alternate cast for this production, with Fred Pitts as Johnny and Kelly Rinehart as Frankie. 

As the hopeful romantic Johnny, Fred Pitts is charming and positive, as he should be. However, Pitts falls into a trap of being so positive that he glosses over the darker elements and ends up being a bit flat. Don’t get me wrong: Johnny is a likeable character, as is Pitts in his portrayal. 

Kelly Rinehart handles Frankie’s complexity well. She is strong when she needs to be, and lovely and vulnerable as well. I got the sense, however, that when she demands that Johnny leave her apartment (as she does several times), she’s not quite serious about it.

“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” closed on December 18. Due to unforeseen personal circumstances, I was not able to complete this review prior to their closing. My apologies to the Pear Theatre, the cast, and the production crew. For information regarding upcoming productions at the Pear Theatre, click here.

Rating: *** (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” by Terrance McNally. Produced by The Pear Theatre. Director: Troy Johnson. Set Design and Technical Director: Louis Stone-Collogne. Lighting Designer: Aya Matsutomo. Sound Designer: David L Hobbs. Costume Designer: Pati Bristow.

Cast: Frankie: Kristin Walter/Kelly Rinehart.  Johnny: Sean Purcell/Fred Pitts.

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