Playwright Terrence McNally does "small" with the best of them. This work looks no further than a weekend spent by two people in a one-room New York apartment. Yet by being small but not slight, this 1987 play reflects the known universe of experience--of love and pain and the unremitting desire to be connected with someone.
Frankie and Johnny work in a New York diner. She's a cool, deeply defensive waitress; he's a warm-hearted, extroverted short-order cook. We meet them after their first tryst, which Frankie assumes will be their last. As Johnny, Michael Pressman exhibits refines comic timing and boundless energy. He's then surprisingly dark when momentarily lost in his character's pain. As Frankie, Lisa Chess is so natural her performance seems improvised. As befits the piece, Chess works in small but not slight ways. Her Frankie is crusty only superficially; fear emerges in her eyes, in nearly imperceptible hesitations, in a twitch of her lips. Her Frankie shows no self-pity about the life that has half slipped away. And her explosions of anger grow from tiny flames. When Pressman and Chess interrupt each other, it is spontaneous; when they clutch each other, they blend into one.
Under Pressman's wily direction every note rings true, every subtle movement has meaning. Kis Knekt's set not only embodies a New York walkup but also gives hints of Frankie's hidden warmth. Lights by Joe Morrissey illuminate the story realistically, from rosy neon glow to bare-bulb harshness.
McNally mocks his own play for being small. Johnny quotes Shakespeare, raising the specters of huge plays with huge characters in huge settings. The quotes include the major lines from the major plays. McNally's addition to famous quotes might be: "It scares people how much we really know one another, so we pretend we don't." Frankie and Johnny have an improbable number of things in common. As McNally may be telling us, don't we all.