‘Frankie and Johnny’: Characters you can relate to
Two ordinary lives with diverging views of their future together

By JULIE MCHALE - Post Theater Critic

September 28, 2017

Marcella Kearns as Frankie, left, and Todd Denning as Johnny in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” 
Photo by Paul Ruffolo

 MILWAUKEE - ”Frankie and Johnny” is a story you may have encountered, if not on stage, perhaps in the 1991 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino.

It is a love story of sorts, though not your typical one. It’s funny and poignant in about equal measure.

Those two movie stars, by the way, are way too beautiful for this story. Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning, presently playing at Milwaukee Chamber, carry the guts of the story with much more credibility. I’d be surprised if playwright Terrence McNally cast the movie.

Johnny is a short-order cook and Frankie a waitress in the same restaurant. They decide to go out on a date and end up in Frankie’s bed in her tiny tawdry apartment.

The play opens in the dark with only the grunts and squeaks of sexual delight. After about five minutes of that, the lights go up and we meet the noisy participants - a middle-aged, not terribly attractive man and woman.

That’s one of the things I like best about this play. These are ordinary people, people whose lives have not measured up to their dreams, people who are survivors, nonetheless. We like them. They have flaws. We can relate.

Now a torrent of words gushes forth from Johnny with Frankie responding in disbelief. Who is this guy, where is he coming from, and why won’t he leave so she can resume her peaceful evening watching TV, eating ice cream, and going to sleep?

They are obviously feeling quite differently about each other at this point.

He wants to pursue the connection, thinking it has some long-term hope of survival. He even mentions love, marriage, having a family. 

She thinks he’s off his gourd.

You can tell they’re really both quite needy, but he’s as desperate and pushy as she is cautious and guarded.

Her thoughts are: Why disrupt their drab lives when they are presently not inordinately unhappy and their futures are relatively predictable?

And though we may lean more toward one than the other’s point of view and may have our doubts about their future, we are totally engaged in watching the process. It doesn’t hurt that both Kearns and Denning are master actors.

A piece of music and a bit of moonlight also become part of the story. As they are finishing their initial lovemaking, a beautiful piece is being played on the radio. Frankie mentions how much she liked it, so Johnny calls into the station and tries to have it re-played and dedicated to them. 

The DJ didn’t know which piece she was so admiring of, so he promised instead to play the most beautiful piece he could find. “Clair de Lune” begins playing. Frankie also notices a splash of moonlight coming in through the blinds.  Ah, a mix of romance and reality.

Will it hold? Who knows? Who can ever predict the maddening ambivalence of any relationship?

Mary MacDonald Kerr does an excellent job of directing.

See it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has ever tried or failed or succeeded in understanding and loving another human being.

“Frankie and Johnny”

The drama runs through Oct. 15 at the Studio Theatre, 1158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7800 or visit