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PREVIEW: Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Casting Spells Production)

James Detmar

Casting Spells Productions’ staging of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune opens on Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Theater Garage in Minneapolis. This unusual and provocative play premiered Off-Broadway in June 1987 for a critically acclaimed 2-week run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. That production, which starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham, was so successful that the Manhattan Theatre Club revived it just 4 months later for what was planned as a 6-week run and ended up running for 16 months.

The director of Frankie and Johnny, Casting Spells’ Producer and Director James Detmar, is no stranger to provocation. A long-time creative advertising director and the former Artistic Director of Brave New Workshop, Detmar sat down with the Twin Cities Arts Reader to talk about realism, frankness, and modern romance under the glimmers of moonlight.

In his review of the original Off-Broadway run of this play in 1987, the New York Times’ Frank Rich called it “[possibly] the most serious play yet about intimacy in the age of AIDS.” AIDS is not the untreatable spectre that it once was and ideas of romance and relationships have changed considerably. What made this play so powerful in 1987?

Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune Director James Detmar (left) as Vince Lombardi in the History Theatre's 2012 production of Lombardi. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune Director James Detmar (left) as Vince Lombardi in the History Theatre’s 2012 production of Lombardi. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.

By 1987, the AIDS epidemic had spread from “just the gay” community, to confirmation that sharing needles could spread the disease, and that it could be spread from mothers to children during breastfeeding. This expansive tremor of uncertainty shook the country, and especially New York City, LA, San Fran, where the disease was hammering the theater/arts/fashion community. As the heterosexual community started asking… what about us, what about our lifestyle choices… Frankie and Johnny became a voice for all who sought intimacy, not just the gay community. A yearning to not live in fear. As Frankie says, “I don’t know about you, but I get so sick and tired of living this way, that every so often I just want to act like Saturday night really is a Saturday night, the way they used to be.”

Do you think it has the same power today, and why or why not?

I do. Although the spread of AIDS has slowed, thanks to advanced and enhanced treatments, we still live in a time where there are numerous STDs, and the stigma that they bring, moving through our communities. And thanks to the explosion of social media and dating sites like, E-Harmony, etc. we can now date at a much more prolific pace.

There is a large segment of our population who falls into that “mid-40s, divorced, widowed, seeking intimacy” group that is still confronted by the question of, “Can I afford to be a free spirit and capture the sexual/sensual essence that beats inside me… to live in this moment… or will a succumb to the fear of the unknown? How many chances do we get to find a true connection, and is it worth the risk to find out if this in the one?”

Have you chosen a period setting in New York, or transplanted the play to another time and/or place?

Shanan Custer (Frankie) and Charles Hubbell (Johnny) in Casting Spells Productions' Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Photo by James Detmar.
Shanan Custer (Frankie) and Charles Hubbell (Johnny) in Casting Spells Productions’ Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Photo by James Detmar.
I have chosen to present it as written. The story is what is ultimately important, not the time and place. There is something raw and gritty, exposed, about the Upper West Side in the late ’80s that I love. Before the sweeping re-gentrifcation, many of our major urban areas were on the brink of collapse, rough around the edges, worse for wear… I think that fits Frankie and Johnny to a tee. As Johnny describes the two of them to the Radio DJ, “No great beauties, either one.”

The 2002 Broadway production of this play is rather infamous for its use of nudity. How have you chosen to use (or not use) this in the opening act?

I think that the nudity, tastefully done, is absolutely essential to the conceit of this piece. The play, at its heart, is about whether we are able to expose ourselves, warts and all, to another human being. To risk humiliation, in search of connection.

Much of this play was considered quite provocative in 1987. It’s been 28 years and we have shows like Game of Thrones that push the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable in mainstream entertainment. Does this staging push any boundaries, and, if so, how?

I think the big difference is that with film and television, you are afforded a comfortable disconnect with the provocative, because it is in a box or on a large screen…not two people, 15 feet from you, saying and doing things that make people squirm and shift in their seats.

I haven’t added any gimmicks to try to push those boundaries. That said, I haven’t shied away from the frank and unvarnished language of the play, either. It will make some people uncomfortable, I would imagine. For others, I think they will find the piece refreshing, because of the earnestness of the characters and how much they possess the same concerns, fears and doubt that our audiences do. They are just doing it with a lot less clothing and salty, in your face language, than people are accustomed to experiencing outside the comforts of their own homes.

Basil Considine