Before the show I was picking out tunes played in the background. ”Big Time," (Peter Gabriel) "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," (Wang Chung) "Into the Midnight Blue." (Lou Gramm.) Pop tunes from 1986/1987 were playing as everyone's entering the theatre. Frankie and Johnny In The Clair De Lune opened in '87...there's been a great attention to detail in being precise on the era right down to the missing kid on the milk carton. (Okay...so I didn’t actually SEE the kid on the milk carton and cross-reference it against an actual instance of a missing child in New York in 1987, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Scenic Designer Brandon Kirkham didn’t get into that level of detail. It all feels so...distinct.) The design team did a really good job of putting together the feel of an apartment in Manhattan 30 years ago. Playwright Terrence McNally’s script has dialogue so heavily weighted in the pop culture of the era.
The “Continuing the Conversation” Audience Guide put together by Milwaukee Chamber feels a little weird to me. They’re referring to an era I lived through like it’s...history. And it IS, which is why it’s so fascinating to peer into McNally’s remarkably open gaze into a couple of people meeting at a very specific time pop culturally.
Human Connection Has Changed So Much In 30 Years
Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning are playing a couple of people who work at the same restaurant in ’87. It’s a simple connection between the two of them. It starts as the kind of passing intimacy that’s becoming increasingly more and more difficult as things get wired and wi-fi-ed . It’s so easy to forget how ephemeral human connection was in an era before mobile phones and social media. A couple of people say the right things at the right times and they end up spending the night together in an apartment. A chance connection between two people in one of the largest cities on earth...there’s a kind of romance in that.
The Fleeting Nature of Art Before The Internet
At one point, Bach’s Goldberg Variations comes on the radio and neither of them can identify it. Frankie actually calls the radio station to find out what it was. Then he tells her that he’ll go down to a record shop and buy it for her when he gets a chance...I remember that. You hear a song floating around somewhere in the ether and you have to make a mental note to try to figure out what it is later so that you can look for it at a record store. There was even kind of a romance in that. Such imperfect moments of connection which are all the more overly defined and heavily-rendered in an era where every bit of trivia is a Google away in your pocket and you can download any song you want the moment you want to hear it. Images of everything seem that much less fleeting if everyone has a camera in their pocket that’s attached to a phone that works like a magic walkman.
Okay: granted--I was like...TEN when this play opened (I could have BEEN the kid on that milk carton) but it was the era when I first--awakened pop culturally. I tend to fall into a kind of a default understanding of the world through the late 1980s. It’s easy to forget how much things have changed until you walk into a 1987 that’s been so convincingly rendered as it is here.
They Brush Their Teeth
In over 1,000 shows over the course of ten years, I don’t ever remember seeing characters brush their teeth. It’s an incredibly mundane act that everyone engages in, but it’s not exactly a central source of drama in most people’s lives. When Frankie and Johnny brush their teeth, we’re seeing them on an incredibly intimate level. Terrence McNally is showing us a couple of people completely opening up to each other in an apartment in New York...there’s a vulnerability in that and some of that vulnerability is becomes strikingly clear when the two characters are brushing their teeth.
James Pickering is a DJ
The DJ of a classical station comes on the radio. It's the unmistakable voice of James Pickering. I don’t see any direct reference to the actor in the program (aside from being mentioned in the “Special Thanks” section of the program.) But I’ll be damned if that’s not Jim Pickering. He's perfect for it. I don't listen to radio anymore but I would listen to classical radio if James Pickering was the DJ.
Staging Life Offstage
The big appeal here is seeing a pair of characters gradually fitting into a space where they feel completely at ease. Feeling completely at ease is feeling completely informal. This is really, really hard to do in theatre. Any two people can have a conversation in an apartment. What makes it art is putting it onstage without making it feel artificial. Director Mary MacDonald Kerr has helped to develop a very convincingly natural feel for a domestic social interaction between two people. It's the type of thing that sticks with you. It's the next morning and I'm having a casual moment in the kitchen with my wife...and there's a part of me looking around for the fourth wall. They've done such a good job of bringing the Reality to The Stage for the show that it's the next morning and I'm looking for The Stage in Reality.
Frankie and Johnny In The Clair De Lune runs through Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.