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‘Frankie and Johnny’ Make Passionate Theater at Shaker Bridge

Johnny’s a guy who’s hard to love. He pushes too hard, talks too much, doesn’t take no for an answer and is a sap, to boot. Frankie, on the other hand, is all sharp elbows. She talks too little and doubts too much and tries to put as much distance as possible between herself and Johnny’s crazy insistence that they’re magic, based on one admittedly incendiary sexual encounter. And in Terence McNally’s funny, romantic, radiant play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune , they’re meant for each other. Johnny thinks they are, anyway, but Frankie’s got other ideas.

The two-person play, which was first produced off-Broadway in 1987 with Kathy Bates as Frankie and F. Murray Abraham as Johnny, opens Shaker Bridge Theatre’s season this weekend in Enfield.

I’d seen another production of this play some time ago, and wasn’t enamoured of it. And the movie adaptation, directed by Gary Marshall and starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as, rather implausibly, lonely souls who’ve bottomed out in the love department, had a bad case of terminal cuteness. It’s the kind of movie where stereotyped old ladies sitting at the next table comment on the action — Look, Marge, he’s asking her out. You don’t say, Gladys! Now he’s kissing her! Pass the smelling salts! And we’re supposed to say, Adorable!

But in this entrancing version, directed by Bill Coons, all of Johnny’s moony, swoony, let’s-get- married love talk, which sounds completely nutty at first considering they don’t really know each other at all, starts to work on you, just as it does on Frankie.

Johnny’s a short-order cook in a New York coffee shop, and Frankie’s one of the waitresses. They’re supposed to be middle-aged, and less-than-perfect looking, and I haven’t seen one production where the actors actually met that standard of unremarkableness. This one’s no different. The two leads, Grant Neale and LeeAnne Hutchison, are not middle-aged and they’re attractive. But they’re so persuasive as the two lovers who spend one evening making love, and then circling each other until dawn comes, that it doesn’t really matter.

The point McNally is making isn’t new — love can make us extraordinary — but he sells it with such feeling, panache and good will that he reminds us of the transforming power of love. Frankie really would prefer, all things being equal, to be left to herself without a nudge like Johnny around to tell her that he knows what she thinks and feels. Johnny is manic, on fire with the certainty that Frankie is The One. He’s a preacher and she’s the potential convert, hard and cynical on the outside, but more vulnerable and wanting to believe than she lets on.

Both Hutchison and Neale are ou tstanding as Frankie and Johnny. She’s tense, wary, angry and impatient. He’s ardent, jokey, demanding and relentless. Alone, they’re just two people going about their lives, but together, they sand away each other’s rough edges. What they give each other is possibility, and that most delicate of butterflies — hope. In less capable hands, the play could verge on gooey, but director Bill Coons makes it an expansive, big-hearted evening of theater.

“Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune” continues through Oct. 27 at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield. For more information and tickets, call 603-448-3750 or go to shakerbridgetheatre.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.