I checked out quite a few plays from the campus library where I went to college. This wasn’t a result of budding theater fandom or idle curiosity, but stemmed directly from the movie review radio program I co-produced and co-hosted. As much as I reasonably could, I tried to consume the source material of films adapted from other mediums before sitting before the newer works as they flickered on the movie screen. Given the limited time I had–I did have assigned text that I was supposed to be reading, after all–I often decided to trying to read plays was a more effective use of my time than slogging through novels. I still well remember, for example, the satisfaction in being able to knowledgably compare Norman Jewison’s film version of Other People’s Money to Jerry Sterner’s original stage play (the play is far better). Through it all, there was only one time I felt compelled to actually seek out a printed copy of the play for my own collection after finishing my borrowed copy. That play was Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally.
I read the play because of Garry Marshall’s film adaption, a largely dismissed effort that I like quite a bit. Marshall’s film, the title shortened to Frankie and Johnny, had a screenplay that was also written by McNally, and it’s a master class in preserving the original work while opening it up to take advantage of the greater breadth of place and character afforded by film. The play is confined to a single set, Frankie’s small apartment, while McNally carries the film into the diner workplace of the two title characters, a place alluded to in the play but realized with an astute attention to the wearying challenges of working on the lowest rungs of the service industry ladder (an area my cohorts and I at a small, Central Wisconsin movie theater knew very, very well). The screenplay brings in other characters, which serves to open up the social world of Frankie and Johnny only to accentuate their loneliness, the reasons why they ultimately need one another. And McNally’s dialogue captured that need beautifully. “Everything I want is in this room,” delivered by a instantly devoted Johnny to a deeply reluctant Frankie, remains a line that pierces my heart just by thinking of it.
For a time, I haunted the drama section of used bookstores, always on the hunt for another work by McNally. Luckily, they were fairly easy to come by throughout the mid-nineties, when McNally was regularly triumphing with plays such as Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class. Sadly, I’ve still never seen one of McNally’s plays mounted on the stage, but I’ve savored his words repeatedly.