Losers in Love: A Couple of Washouts Bump Uglies in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Blank Canvas Theatre

The principal players in most romantic comedies usually find themselves in interesting locations, such as the observation deck of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle or at a New Year's Eve party in When Harry Met Sally.

But in Terrence McNally's downbeat yet masterfully constructed rom-com Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, now at Blank Canvas Theatre, the two lovers never leave her crummy, claustrophobic apartment in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. In fact, they barely even leave her fold-out sofa bed.

This two-hander features plenty of McNally's famous wit and benefits from two strong performances and smooth, sensitive direction by Marc Moritz. But there is one huge disconnect that makes the entire play markedly less successful than it might have been.

Frankie is a middle-aged waitress at a greasy spoon where the slightly older Johnny has been recently hired as a short order cook. Apparently, they scoped each other out over the scrambled eggs and ham sandwiches, then decided to go on this first date.

After a bad dinner and an equally unfortunate movie, they've landed here in Frankie's flat and, as the curtain rises, we catch them in mid-orgasm as they grunt and scream in coital bliss.

As the two-act play progresses, through the late night and early morning hours, we learn more about these two supposedly unattractive losers who are part of the flotsam of the big city. Each is divorced and has baggage—he's an ex-con (forgery) and she is under-educated, dreaming haplessly of becoming a teacher someday.

They are also on different pages when it comes to this evening's activities. Johnny quickly becomes infatuated with Frankie, declaring his love for her and coming on as a bit of a creep. Frankie keeps mollifying him, mostly to get rid of him. She says she's hungry and wants him to leave. But Johnny is settling in and refuses to go.

And just when you think the story might take a dark turn, it veers off into more small talk about Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, the Kennedys, and Johnny's insistent need to connect.

As Frankie says, "You're sincere, and that's what makes it so awful." Both characters are damaged goods, trying to protect themselves while also attempting to live a life with some meaning. And that dance is gracefully crafted by McNally, with a number of laugh lines that never seem out of place.

Doug Kusak plays Johnny with an unvarnished honesty that almost always works. His genuine feelings for Frankie slowly morph from uncomfortable to something sublime. And even though he tries a bit too hard to be the likeable emcee of the piece, playing at being quirky instead of just being quirky, he is otherwise on point throughout.

He is nicely matched by Kimberly Escut's Frankie, a woman who can't understand some of the big words Johnny uses. But she has convinced herself she has a firm fix on what she thinks she needs emotionally. Escut pushes some laugh lines too hard but her change in attitude towards Johnny, while a bit mystifying at times, generally rings true.

What doesn't play well at all, and undercuts the play itself, is Ms. Escut's well-cut bod. Frankie is not supposed to be a looker, however Escut has a splendid figure and physique that most 40-something women would kill a close relative to obtain.

Since Frankie is clad in bra and panties for most of the show, her appearance could easily distort the audience's perception of Johnny's fixation. Instead of seeing him as a dumpy, plain-looking guy having a lovely and mystical attraction to a dumpy, plain-looking woman, he might just be seen as another dude ogling and bedding a hot piece of ass.

The latter isn't the story McNally wrote. But if you can look past this production's hard-body issue, Frankie and Johnny has much to offer.