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22 Mar 2014

Chemistry in Spades: CV Rep's 'Frankie and Johnny' Is Funny, Moving and Simply Fabulous

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Joel Bryant and Stephanie Dawn Greene in CV Rep's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Joel Bryant and Stephanie Dawn Greene in CV Rep's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Sal Mistretta

The first thing you need to know about Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is that there’s nudity—quite a bit of full frontal nudity, right at the top of the first act.

The second thing you need to know is that the production is fabulous. Founder and artistic director Ron Celona has hit another one out of the park.

The two-character play by Terrence McNally was first performed off-Broadway in 1987. It tells the story of two lonely people, both in their 40s, whose first date ends with a mutually satisfying roll in the hay. While Johnny is convinced he will ride off into the sunset with Frankie, she has some serious doubts: She is far more cautious, and prefers to take things slowly. As the night progresses, they slowly bare their souls to each other … which may or may not lead to a viable relationship. The “Clair de Lune” referred to in the title is a piece of music by Claude Debussy. This fact is important to the plot.

When Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune made its way to Broadway in August 2002, it starred Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. It ran for 243 performances, and both the play (as a revival) and Tucci earned Tony nominations. I’m sure they were marvelous in the roles—but the CV Rep cast would give them a run for their money: Stephanie Dawn Greene (Frankie) and Joel Bryant (Johnny) are simply tremendous.

In a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry is vital, and Greene and Bryant have it in spades. From the second the lights come up as they’re exuberantly consummating their relationship, the audience believes that these two will—or at least should—somehow end up together. Greene is spunky yet vulnerable as waitress and failed actress Frankie. We feel for her when she doesn’t always understand the big words Johnny throws around—but we know, deep down, that she’s probably the wiser of the two. After their apparent one-night stand, Frankie becomes anxious for Johnny to leave. He resists, sometimes with charm, and at other times with a persistence that borders on creepy. (Some women in the audience may relate to this predicament.)

Like Frankie, Johnny (a cook who works with her) is longing for acceptance and hesitant to reveal all the details of his past. He’s divorced and has spent time in prison, while she is uneducated, can’t have kids and has survived an abusive relationship. Both had mothers who walked out on them as children. Bryant’s Johnny is funny and cocky, yet clearly desperate for love. There is one point in the second act when Johnny’s emotional breakdown seems just a tad over the top and whiny, but otherwise, both Bryant and Greene are flawless. (Both are also in great physical shape—a big plus when you’re running around onstage unclothed.)

Director Ron Celona elicits strong performances from the actors, and moves them around on stage quite effectively. Jimmy Cuomo’s set could not be any better, and the lighting (Stuart A. Fabel) and sound (Kara Masek) create just the right mood throughout the production.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, CV Rep’s final production of the 2013-2014 season, completes the theater’s retrospective of Terrence McNally plays. Congrats to Ron Celona for once again offering the Coachella Valley professional, high-quality entertainment. As long as you’re not squeamish about a little nudity and some salty language, this play is a must-see.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40, and the running time is two hours, with a 15 minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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