Blame it on that old devil moon. Lunar light — and a little night music, too — finds its way through the cracks of the walls a pair of damaged souls have built in Terrence McNally’s 1987 romance in hard times, receiving a loving revival at Hartford Stage.
But making a substantial human connection is more than sex, however passionate the frolic on the foldout bed may be. The characters — a wary waitress and an exuberant short-order chef at a greasy spoon, both with failed dreams and hidden histories — must find their ways through the shadows of their tenuous relationship.
Johnny (Robert Clohessy) has no doubt that this last chance at love is here to stay; he professes it in extravagant ways. But the hardened Frankie (Portia) has been hurt too many times and knows what her heart can take, especially with a person as strange, needy and desperate as Johnny. After sex, all she wants is to return to the safety of her solo life.
The single-mindedness of this Shakespeare-spouting man who wants something more than a one- (or multiple-) night stand is unnerving, confusing and even scary for the waitress who has found risk-free comfort in her Hell’s Kitchen apartment. (Takeshi Kata’s design has just the right amount of engaging dreariness, nicely lit with chiaroscuro shadings by Jaymi Lee Smith).
The play is more than a comic duet of mismatched personalities or a battle of libidinous wills. Underneath it all is a lingering ache that cries out to be healed. But to get to that point, the characters have to expose their damaged selves.
It takes a pair of exceptional actors to sustain the variations in this extended dance between two “middle-aged and not beautiful” people. Helmer Jeremy B. Cohen guides his actors to truthful perfs without stooping to easy sentiment. Both actors gradually reveal their characters while respecting the play’s rhythms, music and movements.
With a streetwise Brooklyn accent and a body proud of its flaws, Clohessy makes Johnny a lovable but complex lug who is not afraid to let it all hang out emotionally — or physically, in a role that requires casual nudity from both thesps.
But nakedness is not the same thing as exposing the most intimate details of your life, and Portia’s Frankie is a woman who has kept that part of herself protectively layered. The no-nonsense Frankie spends much of the play defending against Johnny’s onslaught of romance, and Portia’s sometimes tough, sometimes weary responses to Johnny’s unsettling persistence are sharply drawn with great comic effect.
Perfs comes into their own, however, when the final bricks of their emotional walls come down as Frankie and Johnny share their secrets and allow the chance of love to fully enter their lives. As the moon gives way to the dawn, what remains is not a grand moment of opera but rather an intimate chamber piece for the heart.
The play may begin with a sexual climax, but it ends with the wondrous simplicity of two people brushing their teeth side by side, apart and yet together, ready to take on the new day.