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In the Raw 

Emotions and bodies are bared in Ensemble's excellent Frankie and Johnny.

It's not every play that starts with a climax. But even before the lights come up on this Ensemble Theatre production, the moans of the Big O are filling the air, as a man and woman grind lovingly against each other on a scrawny hide-a-bed. Thus begins Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a revival of the 1987 exploration by Terrence McNally into the mating habits of two faceless nonentities.

This play got big press last year on Broadway, when HBO's Carmela Soprano (actress Edie Falco) stripped naked and played Frankie to Stanley Tucci's equally in-the-buff Johnny. While there is no celebrity flesh on display on the Cleveland Play House's Brooks Theatre stage, there is plenty of nudity, raw emotions, and a couple of nearly flawless performances. You may never have heard of Charles Kartali or Julia Kolibab, but you're unlikely to forget them after seeing them bare all in this tenderly calloused comedy.

Frankie and Johnny, both in their 40s, work at a New York eatery -- she as a waitress and he as the short-order cook. After eyeing each other over steaming omelets, they decide to do a variation on one of their side orders and play hide-the-sausage back at Frankie's small flat in Hell's Kitchen. Once the humping's done, Frankie invites Johnny to exit so she can get some shuteye, but Johnny has much bigger plans. Suddenly, a night of casual sex morphs into something more profound -- and perhaps frightening -- as the super-intense Johnny professes his eternal love and declares he wants to marry her and have kids. And by the way, he ain't going nowhere.

Not knowing if she's trapped with a lunatic, Frankie veers from cajoling to confrontational as she tries to extricate herself from Johnny's laser-beam love stare and his panoply of patter. Veteran playwright McNally brilliantly conveys Frankie's mixed emotions -- after all, he was a damn good lay, and she still has to work with him -- along with Johnny's monomaniacal fixations. In one instance, Johnny begs to look at Frankie's pussy for a few seconds and Frankie finally relents, opens her robe, and then distances herself by relating an anecdote about her dead parakeet. In McNally's capable hands, these off-center moments are wholly believable: These two lumpy middle-agers have been swept out to sea by life, and they're just trying to get through the night by holding onto each other like a passing chunk of driftwood. And who's to say that's not one definition of love?

Julia Kolibab is splendid as Frankie, probing her character's grit and vulnerabilities (including a violent past with tragic consequences), and never striking a false note. She is matched by Charles Kartali, who makes Johnny dance on the knife-edge between borderline psychotic and downright cuddly. Director Licia Colombi wisely keeps the proceedings taut while allowing her actors to discover themselves in each other. We can all relate to Frankie's push-pull of emotions when she frustratedly screams at Johnny, "You're sincere! That's what's so awful!" Awfully damn good, in this case.

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