'Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees Jan. 27 and Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. Through Feb. 10.
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
*** The title of Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" butts a saloon song up against Debussy. It's emblematic of this jarringly rough-edged romance, intensely portrayed by Mark E. Campion and Gloria Henderson at Fells Point Corner Theater.
Theatergoers with tender sensibilities may find this romance a little rough to sit through, at least in the early going. It starts out with five or so minutes of total darkness in which we hear the prolonged and enthusiastic sounds of a couple making love. (Director Richard Jackson, who has done a sensitive job in all other respects, could shorten this scene and get the same effect.)
The point of the scene is to set up an evening of opposites -- the play's central theme, as the title suggests. Mr. McNally toys with our expectations by presenting what appears to be a one-night stand, then turning it into a surprisingly affecting love story.
Given the emphasis on opposites, it figures that the lovers are divergent types. But Mr. McNally toys with us here, too. On the surface, Frankie and Johnny -- the only characters in the play -- have a lot in common. Not only do their names form the title of a popular song, but they both work in the same greasy spoon -- he as a short-order cook and she as a waitress.
There are other similarities as well, but none can obscure the fact that he's a die-hard romantic who goes after what he wants, and she's not only afraid of commitment, she's afraid of affection.
Mr. Campion and Ms. Henderson enact the mating dance that ensues with genuine finesse. In fact, the only flaw in the casting is that the actors are too attractive to effectively convey these outta-luck, outta-shape, middle-aged characters.
Still, the relentless determination with which Mr. Campion's Johnny chases Frankie is always believable. At the same time, Ms. Henderson lets us understand Frankie's disbelief and irritation at Johnny's insistent declarations of ardor. On the most basic level, however, these two yearn to connect, and Mr. Jackson's direction makes the air bristle when they do.
At the end of "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," what sticks with you isn't the rawness of the love scenes (which include nudity), but the underlying feelings of tenderness and hope. If most love stories are sugar-coated, this one is virtually sugar-free. The result isn't pretty, but it is achingly real.