Two Romantic Comedies, Written a Century Apart, Share a Single Truth

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photo by Ed Dumas

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Two new productions of well-known romantic comedies opened on Friday. We’re going to review them both on a single page.

Charley’s Aunt, being a production of the University of Tennessee’s well-endowed Clarence Brown Theatre, is the more elaborate of the two. The drawing-room farce hinges on the misunderstandings arising when a foppish young gentleman poses as a widowed aunt, and therefore a worthy chaperone for his friends’ wooing projects. The conflict is dependent upon one fact perhaps overexplained in the program: the custom that single men weren’t trusted in the presence of single women without a chaperone.

The play is a historical artifact, the most successful comedy of the Victorian era, and a good deal more rollicking than you might imagine, considering that much-stereotyped time, with gender-bending absurdities and light sexual innuendo.

Comedy often has a short shelf life. It’s sobering to contemplate that all the people who laughed at this play in Sherlock Holmes-era London are long dead. But about 90 percent of its jokes survive the centuries. Occasionally there’s a line that sounds like it came from a conversation bubble in a turn-of-the-century Sunday comic—“College gents will do anything,” the butler keeps reminding us, emphatically, and when he says the kitchen staff is “Ex-Hausted,” I wondered if that was some cultural inside joke you had to be there, in 1892, to get. But what survives reminds us that Hollywood didn’t invent the screwball comedy. Most of it works surprisingly well, prefiguring gender-bending comedies like Some Like It Hot.

Unintended jokes may make this even more rollicking than it was in 1892. I suspected a lot of the laughter of the opening-night audience was based on misapprehensions of terms like “making love” and “toilet,” which have changed meanings over these last dozen decades. The cast didn’t seem to mind.

All the parts were played well, and broadly, all by either members of the Clarence Brown company or UT theater students. Michael Moreno, who plays Babs, is an obvious favorite. He’ll remind you of another famous cross-dressing farciste, Tim Curry, but Moreno is more manic and more compact. He’s funny even when his lines aren’t. His loony grin is charming for close to two hours.

It’s a minor problem that the play lasts two and a half hours, including two intermissions; another five minutes might have been too much, even of Babs in drag.

Theatre Knoxville’s production of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune is a romantic comedy involving an unlikely couple; all resemblance to Clarence Brown’s show ends there. This two-person show is a 1987 effort by contemporary multiple-Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally, still active and still controversial at 70.

Frankie and Johnny hardly know each other—they’ve worked together in the same cheap New York restaurant for a few weeks, he as a cook, she as a waitress. They enjoy what might be considered a modern urban first date, culminating in big sex in Frankie’s shabby apartment—the play opens in mid-orgasm—but followed, more surprisingly, by something more intimate: uncomfortably revealing personal arguments, the sort that usually come with roughly the fourth year of marriage. All of this before either character knows the other’s age or last name. The same woman who’s so disgusted she’s demanding her date leave, post-coitus, is suddenly in love with him, inviting him back to bed. These things happen in the course of a long, rocky relationship; it may have been an experiment in relationship relativism to see if all of love’s contradictions could credibly manifest themselves on a first date.

Johnny (Vania Smrkovski) is a smart, sentimental loudmouth of liberal interests who roars incessantly about flatulence and Shakespeare. Frankie (Bonnie Lotesto) is a practical woman of limited cultural references who seems to have made peace with life’s disappointments. As portrayed—a little too hurriedly, especially in the first act—she delivers some deadly funny lines. But Johnny, powerfully played by Smrkovski, fills the room by himself, and it’s never clear what about her might inspire such sudden larger-than-life devotion.

Beyond her physical attributes, that is. The audience gets to appreciate those almost as well as Johnny does. Regardless of the play’s strengths or weaknesses, Frankie and Johnny will be spoken of for the rest of this year, and maybe for years to come, as the nude play. Stage nudity is not a regular thing hereabouts.

Nakedness is problematic in smaller markets, not just because of community values—you won’t see much that’s not represented permanently, in quadruplicate, in stone on the front of the 1905 Miller’s Building, just down the street—but by the fact that in a smaller market, the actress runs the risk of being hounded by admirers. We’re grateful for Lotesto’s intrepid performance.

In fact, this play raised eyebrows for its nudity even in New York, because Frankie, first played by stocky, formidable Kathy Bates, is middle-aged. Even New Yorkers aren’t accustomed to seeing middle-aged women naked, and desired. Lotesto isn’t middle-aged and appears to be almost a generation younger than her 40-ish character. (She clearly lacks one minor physical defect mentioned in the script.) Youth and beauty are wonderful things, but undermine the play’s impact.

Directed by one of our residents pros, Biz Lyon, it’s a funny play, maybe more successful in the second act when we’re more certain we don’t dislike the characters.

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