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Murder in the stacks: The unsolved case of Betsy Ruth Aardsma


Murder in the stacks: The unsolved case of Betsy Ruth Aardsma

By
John William Tuohy




On the afternoon of November 28,1969, Betsy Ruth Aardsma, a 22-year-old graduate student at the Pennsylvania State University was stabbed to death as she studied in the school’s library.
There was absolutely nothing in Betsy background that would have led to her murder. She was pretty and popular with the men. She was artistic and bright with high ideals and planned to work in the Peace Corps after graduating with honors from The University of Michigan in 1969. But instead, she followed her boyfriend, David L. Wright, to Pennsylvania where he was a pre-med student at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. They were planning to marry in late 1969. Wright had last seen Betsy on November 27th, two days before she was killed. The couple had an informal Thanksgiving dinner with some of Wright’s fellow med students. Afterward, he drove her to the bus depot so that she could return to school.

Wright

On the night she killed, Betsy walked to the library around 4pm with her roommate, Sharon Brandt. Betsy, who was almost always dressed in student-casual, seemed to dress for the visit to the library, wearing a sleeveless red dress over a white cotton turtleneck sweater, causing police to guess that she planning to meet someone.
At the library, Betsy headed to the basement to the chief bibliographer’s office and then went up to the second floor. As she walked to the stacks, she came across another student, a girl, who asked her for a pen. The library is large, and the stacks were largely isolated although the library had about 90 students in it at the time.
Dean Brungart, an assistant stacks supervisor saw Betsy in the stacks at about 4:30 and also reported that he saw two men chatting near the area. At some point between 4:45 p.m. and 4:55 p.m. The rows were narrow, not large enough for two people to pass unless one turns sideways.
Betsy was stabbed with a knife, once, most likely from behind, through the left breast which severed her pulmonary artery and piercing the right ventricle of her heart. After she was stabbed, she slumped to the floor.
The pathologist report read in part “The findings also suggest that the wound was inflicted with considerable force at the time of a face-to-face confrontation of the victim and the assailant, and that this weapon was held in the right hand of the assailant" however the state policemen who investigated the case insist Betsy was grabbed from behind and killed with a perfectly aimed thrust with the knife.
Police speculated that the murder weapon was a hunting-style knife and that murder happened very quickly. The killer stabbed her and walked away. She didn’t scream. She was not sexually assaulted, and the depth of the stab wound would’ve required significant strength. It appears that the killer waited until she fell to the floor before he pulled the knife out of her.
Dean Brungart, the assistant stacks supervisor was one level above the crime scene and heard the books fall to the floor, the sound traveling through an air vent. There were at least nine people were within 70 feet of the murder, one or two reported that they heard a loud gasp but nothing else.
Perhaps a minute after she was stabbed, Mary Erdley, who knew Betsy, was a student who was working as a clerk in the library. She rose from her desk and walked a few feet when from her desk and walked around the corner and came across two men who said, "Somebody better help that girl." and led her back toward rows 50 and 51 where Betsy was. Then the two men vanished. Despite the best efforts to find them, they were never heard from again.
Police insist it was one man and not two, that the man was white, about 20 years old, six feet tall and between 185 and 200 pounds.
Erdley stayed by Betsy side and for 15 to 20 minutes begged passing students to help her before anyone would stop. Several books had fallen on the floor next to her. The stab wound produced only a small amount of visible blood and even that was covered up by a dark red dress she was wearing, enough so that it was not until she was examined at the Health Center that anyone realized that she had been stabbed. The first responders, seeing no outward sign of trauma, assumed she had suffered a seizure. Rushed by ambulance to the Health Center, she was pronounced dead. The campus patrol didn’t secure the crime scene which became contaminated. Worse, a well-meaning janitor cleaned up urine found near the scene and moved evidence around.
"It was just a bad set of circumstances for the police," said Trooper Kent Bernier, the current investigator of the Aardsma case. "The body gets removed. The scene gets contaminated. Then it's a murder. I mean, you couldn't imagine that today."
There had not been a murder on or near the campus since April of 1940 when Rachel Taylor's battered body was found in a parking lot a mile from campus. She had disappeared while walking to her dormitory from a local bus station.
At its peak, about 40 troopers worked on the case out of a command center on the campus. Thousands of students and faculty were questioned. The university posted a $25,000 reward.
The first suspect was Betsy’s boyfriend, David Wright largely because whoever had stabbed Betsy hit the vena cava, and as a medical student, he would have known where to plunge the knife.
Detectives interviewed him dozens of times, badgered him really, to the point where dean George T. Harrell ordered the cops off the grounds. "They still came down about two or three times a week, and there was a kind of drive-in restaurant across from the medical school," Wright said. "They would meet me there and eat lunch and buy me lunch and ask me questions."
Another passing suspect was Richard Haefner, also a student at Penn State at the time and an alleged child molester. Haefner, who generally fit the description of the man who rushed out of the building, was known to be violent, especially towards women and had been accused of several sexual assaults of young boys. 




Haefner (left) and a drawing of one of the men who reported the stabbing

There was a baseless story that Betsy had dated Haefner and dropped him which brought around his revenge. Haefner did speak to his academic advisor right after the murder and was said to be very distraught over the killing. Haefner died of a heart attack in 2002.
Another passing suspect was serial killer John Norman Collins. The police suspected him in at least four murders of women between March and July 1969. Collins was sent to prison for life in 1970.
Serial killer Ted Bundy was mentioned as a possible killer. Bundy attended Temple University in part of 1969, and he was known to spend time at university libraries but those who followed Bundy’s case doubt it.
No leads ever panned out in the case which remains unsolved and grows colder with every passing year.

The mysterious murder of Valerie Percy.


The mysterious murder of Valerie Percy.
By
John William Tuohy



The murder of Valerie Percy remains one of the nation’s most mysterious and notorious crimes.

Valerie’s murder took place in the summer of 1966 when her father, the wealthy Illinois Republican Charles Percy, was running for the US Senate. Percy, who made his fortune as the head of Bell and Howell Corporation had run unsuccessfully for Illinois governor.


Valerie, only 21 years old, and an identical twin (Her sister Sharon would later marry Jay Rockefeller.) had graduated from Cornell that summer and was two days away from postgraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. She was spending her days that summer campaigning alongside her father.


On the night of September 18, 1966, Valerie was sleeping in her room inside her families sprawling 17 room mansion on Lake Michigan At around 5 AM, a Sunday morning, someone used a glass cutter on the Percy back door and found his way to Valerie's second-floor room. Once there, he beat her and stabbed her 14 times, killing her. From the position of the body, police knew that Valerie had probably been sleeping when she was killed. The killer beat her, badly, about the face before stabbing her. She was not sexually assaulted.
The attack was intense and personal. There were multiple lacerations on the left side of her face and her left eye was closed. Her right eye was partly open. A pool of clotted blood stuck to the right side of the back of her neck. Her skull was fractured on the left side, the actual cause of the death.

Two of the 14 stab wounds were in her abdomen and they had penetrated her liver. One stab wound went through her left breast and penetrated her heart. Another in her right breast reached her lung. Yet another went through her throat hitting her spinal column. The killer probably used a double-edged knife. There were several abrasions, tooth marks perhaps, on two fingers on her right hand. (Three days after Valerie’s murder, police found a bayonet in Lake Michigan. To this day authorities believe the murder weapon was a serrated bayonet)
Valerie’s stepmother, Loraine, "was awakened by the sound of someone moaning, and I got up to see what was the matter." She realized the sound was coming from Valerie’s room, ran there, opened the door and saw a man bending over the blood-soaked bed and shining his flashlight on Valerie’s body.

She told police “When he was bending over the bed, I noticed he had on a light shirt or jacket. It may not have been white, but it was light, with a small sort of a check, very small . . . and it didn't go all the way down to his wrists because I could see his forearms. And he had trousers and a belt that were a darkish color, and then he turned and shined a light in my eyes, and I didn't see his face. I just saw an outline and I saw no distinguishing characteristics. I didn't see eyes or mouth. I just saw a dark outline and I noticed the shape of his head and his hairline. That's all."


Directly afterward, Charles Percy, hoping against hope that his daughter might still be alive, phoned a neighbor, Dr. Robert Hohf, ‘Bob, this is Chuck Percy. Will you, please, come right over, Valerie’s been injured’,” Hohf wrote later. ” ‘We’ve already called someone else but would like you to come right away. A policeman is on his way to get you.’ “
Hohf, who lived two doors away, ran to the Percy mansion and ran up the stairs into Valerie's bedroom, "I saw immediately the figure of a badly battered girl, obviously dead." Hohf was never interviewed by police and was not invited to the inquest for the slaying.
Hohf wrote that Valerie was so disfigured from the beating that he didn’t recognize her. Her nightgown was raised to her ribs. Her two sisters, Sharon and Gail, were “badly frightened,” sitting on their parents’ bed facing the lake. The doctor went downstairs and spoke to, Chuck and Loraine. “I told them, ‘I’m awfully sorry, but she’s gone.’ They looked numb but composed and said nothing that I recall.” He recalled that Loraine was barefoot in a short nightgown, but Chuck was fully dressed in slacks, shirt, a sweater and shoes. The three of them walked into the family room, and Hohf was introduced to a couple of friends who had been called to be with the surviving children. A butler served coffee, and Hohf wrote, “I had a feeling that much had happened before I arrived.”
By then the Kenilworth police, the town police, had arrived. Charles Percy told them that they needed to act quickly, only 20 minutes had passed since Loraine walked in on the killer. Then Percy called Chicago police.
Dr. Hohf was still present when Loraine was interviewed by homicide detectives “A flashlight beam immediate(ly) was thrown into her eyes,” Hohf wrote, “blinding her so that she was conscious of only a vague form and movement. She ran back into her own room and screamed at Chuck that there was an intruder in Val’s room. While she turned on lights and the fire siren, Chuck called the tel. operator and asked her to call the Kenilworth police. … They arrived in five minutes. (Loraine) thought she heard the person bounding down the stairs. When she returned to Val’s (room), Val was still moaning and looked very white. Lon wiped her face with a pillow and felt a pulse which disappeared after a few seconds.”
He added that Loraine told her story “calmly but in somewhat disjointed fashion,” with speculation that household workers might be responsible.


Before he left, Hohf looked over the glass of the French door where the killer had broken his way into the house. Hohf made a note that the door itself was broken, smashed really, different from the initial reports that the killer had cut the glass cleanly. Further investigation showed that the killer had first cut the glass, but the hole was too small to reach through, and the person scored the glass with an “X” and smashed it, not the usual method of a professional burglar. The same method was used to break into a nearby house the summer before the Percy killing.
The family dog didn’t bark, leading police to suspect that the killer was familiar to him. The fact that the killer made his way directly to Valerie’s bedroom probably meant that he was familiar with the house and had a knowledge of who slept where.
The murderer left five bloody palm prints on the banister and a black leather glove outside the mansion. There were also footprints at the Percy home leading to the beach.
The investigation went nowhere until 1973, eight years after the fact when the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper broke a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a ring of mob burglars who probably broke into the Percy home to steal silver and jewels.


One jailed member of the burglary team, Harold James Evans, told investigators that another member, Frederick J. "Freddie" Malchow, had bragged that he killed Percy. The convicted leader of the gang, Francis Leroy Hohimer, also implicated Malchow as the killer.
Although Malchow already was dead by the time Evans and Hohimer accused him of the crime, the FBI agents had managed to interview Malchow years before when he was in a Pennsylvania jail where he was awaiting trial for rape and robbery in a home invasion. Malchow denied any involvement with the Percy killing. In 1967 he broke out of jail and fell to his death from a railroad trestle.
Still, some investigators believe that it was Malchow "To this day I am convinced that Freddie Malchow was the killer and that he acted alone," said Robert Lamb, the investigator in the Percy killing said 1991. Lamb noted Malchow was in Chicago at the time of the slaying through an airplane baggage ticket.
The problem was, there was nothing stolen from the home. Joseph Dileonardi, the former Chicago police superintendent was a homicide cop who was at the scene in 1966 "This was not a burglar” he said, “nothing was touched, not a thing was touched in that house," said Joseph Dileonardi. "A burglar would not strike a victim 14 times, a stick-up person does not strike a victim 14 times. the other motive, the last motive, was revenge and that's what I think happened to Valerie Percy…… that's my belief 40 years ago, and that's my belief today, 40 years later"
Of course, dozens of people confessed to the killing which only served to slow down the investigation. Chicago police, Cook County state’s attorney investigators and the FBI interviewed about 10,000 people and investigated 1,226 suspects in the first two years.
The police quietly zeroed in on the Percy’s other neighbor William Thoresen III, the son of William E. Thoresen II, president of the Great Western Steel Co. of Chicago. William Thoreson the third was described in an FBI report as “violent, a mental case… armed and dangerous.” Thoresen grew up in the same neighborhood as Valerie, less than two blocks away from the Percy home. Thoresen was a habitual, violent criminal with arrests for aggravated assault and the possession of illegal weapons including bayonets.Most who knew him, including his wife, called him “angry, a loner, hostile and destructive” Before he was 21 he had gone through a number of boarding schools and mental institutions, and he seemed to be completely uneducated. He regularly smashed up cars, terrorized young women and fought with authority.  William stole more than a half a million dollars’ worth of securities in a duffle bag from his parents’ cellar vault because, he claimed, it was his legacy and he had been cheated out of at least another halfmillion.
In 1957 he was stabbed during a scuffle with a parking lot in Evanston, Illinois. A year later he was charged with shoving a person in Kenilworth, Illinois and was fined $50. He was also charged with stealing posters from a ferry terminal in Bar Harbor, Maine. In 1964 he was accused of touching off a dynamite charge in a vacant lot. The charge was dismissed. In 1969 he was tried for illegal possession of weapons in San Francisco.
In 1965, he was suspected of playing some role in the death of his brother Richard on September 21, 1965. Officially, Richard’s death is listed as "Undetermined". (He had been shot directly behind the ear)  Police found his body in a rented car and said that he was shot with a .357 magnum pistol purchased two days earlier by Louise Thoresen, his wife who said she bought the gun for Richard because he had a "thing about guns." Oddly enough, before he died Richard left his brother considerable stock with an estimated, value of $8550,000, or about $5 million today. He also left Louise Thoresen $100,000.



He apparently married Louise to escape commitment by his family to a state mental institution.
Shortly before Richard Thoresen's death, he and William were named in burglary warrants signed by their father who charged the two with breaking into his Kenilworth home.
William Thoresen told his wife several version of the killing, one was that he had hired a professional killer to murder him and that he himself had been the triggerman. 
However, in 1966, Thoresen (Who used his brother's name in this instance) was arrested by San Francisco police with a hood named Lewis Dale Stoddard for assaulting the officers.
Five years later at her hearing for shooting her husband, Louise told the court that in mid-1966, that he husband had beat Stoddard to death with a hammer when he showed up at their home demanding more money for killing Richard Thoresen. William told his wife that he dumped Stoddard’s body in the ocean.

It was Thoresen’s probation officer in Los Angeles who alerted the Chicago police to consider Thoresen a suspect in the Percy killing. The FBI tracked him down to New York and questioned him but Thoresen said he “could be of no help in the Valerie Percy case and refused to be interviewed or answer any questions about the Percy case or any other matters.”
On June 10, 1970, four years after Valerie’s murder, Thoresen, then 32, was killed by his wife Louise who was acquitted in November of 1970. The night before the murder, he had beaten her and broke two of her ribs. She used one of the guns in his vast arsenal (A total of 77 of arms, including cannon and machine guns) to shoot him to death in California home. She put five bullets into him as he lay naked on their bed. Although he didn’t have an actual job, Thoresen, who suffered from a slight speech impediment, a stammer, traveled extensively and there were indications his travels may have involved him in illicit drug traffic. An autopsy showed traces of LSD in his blood and the police found 50 pounds of high-grade marijuana in the Thoresen home.
 “Despite everything rotten he'd been responsible for in my life,” Louise wrote  “I loved him deeply.”



The murder put the Percy campaign on hold, but, after nearly two months when nothing broke in the case, Percy resumed his campaign and won. He remained in the US Senate until 1984. He died in September 2011 at 91 of the effects of Alzheimer’s. At the time he and Loraine lived in an assisted living home in Washington, D.C.
The murder remains unsolved.

*** PLAYWRIGHTS OPPORTUNITIES ***

*** PLAYWRIGHTS OPPORTUNITIES ***

Fourth annual Women Playwrights Initiative: PASSION POWER PROSE 2020.
Our mission is to Inspire, Empower, Validate, and Celebrate women playwrights.
Women playwrights are invited to submit one-act plays written solely by women.

We are specifically looking for TWO ten-fifteen minute plays, and TWO longer plays up to one hour—approximately 50 pages. Plays running longer than one hour will not be considered. Each play will have one staged reading on either Saturday afternoon or Saturday evening on February 22, 2020.

***
Sprout Works is seeking full-length play submissions for our Fall 2019 Mainstage Production. Our Mission is to support the creation of new works, community growth, and provide professional opportunities to early career artists.  We’ve been overjoyed with the success of our last season - a sold out play festival, mainstage production, and reading series.

***
The Ingram New Works Lab is a season-long generative residency and artistic home-away-from-home for playwrights to create and develop a new play while in residence at Nashville Rep. Lab playwrights travel to Nashville approximately once a month to receive transformative support and radical hospitality as they share and develop a new work from the idea stage to a complete draft to be presented at the 2020 Ingram New Works Festival.


*** For more information about these and other opportunities see the web site at http://www.nycplaywrights.org ***


*** TERRENCE MCNALLY *** 

In “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”—first staged in 1987 and revived on Broadway, at the Broadhurst—the playwright Terrence McNally spins this scenario into a kind of underclass romantic comedy; now, though, in 2019, it feels like the first coil of a horror story, or the premise of a miniseries based on a true crime. The thirty-two years between the original production and this new one is, in many ways, not so long a time, but, in the past several years, we have undergone a radical revision in our understanding of male persistence—the sort that keeps Johnny (Michael Shannon) firmly planted, mostly naked, and making his case at the bedside of Frankie (Audra McDonald). The odd tenderness and the funny pathos of “Frankie and Johnny” were, for me, sometimes hard to hear over the din of possible disaster.

More...

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NPR's Scott Simon asks Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon about starring in the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.


***

At first glance, the early life and career of Terrence McNally seems suspiciously charmed: Just a year after graduating from Columbia University in 1960,1 he was hired by John Steinbeck and his wife as a tutor for their two teenage sons on a yearlong family trip around the world.2 By then, McNally was already in a relationship with his first lover, the playwright Edward Albee, who was a decade older.3 Even a warning about McNally’s heavy drinking, in 1980, was starry: The actress Angela Lansbury admonished him that he would never reach his potential as a writer if he continued drinking — at a birthday party for Stephen Sondheim, no less.

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Few people remember this, but Terrence McNally’s first Broadway play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” ran for only 16 performances in 1964.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was that my first play was not a success,” McNally said during a long interview in the expansive lobby of the Driskill Hotel. “But I got back on the horse. If you get out, you don’t belong at the table. I do belong. I spent 60 years or so proving that I belong at the table.”

Indeed, he has.

The Texas-reared playwright, who received a lifetime achievement honor during the June 9 Tony Award ceremony in New York, and whose “Immortal Longings” is scheduled for its world premiere at Zach Theatre on June 20, has penned more than 50 plays, musicals, operas, movies and television dramas.

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Competing demonstrations by religious groups and First Amendment advocates at the opening of a play with a gay Christlike character couldn’t upstage its opening night.

``It was very powerful, very moving. It was the most painful crucifixion you’ll ever see,″ said Richard Berg, 56, after seeing Tuesday’s performance of ``Corpus Christi″ by multiple Tony Award-winner Terrence McNally.

About 2,000 people sang hymns to protest the play while 400 First Amendment advocates held a counter-demonstration nearby. Both sides were kept across the street from the Manhattan Theatre Club.

``Corpus Christi″ depicts a gay Jesus-like figure named Joshua surrounded by gay apostles. It has been the center of controversy for months, well before previews began Sept. 22.

In May, after the play’s content was disclosed, theater officials reported anonymous death threats against actors, audiences and McNally. A private security firm was hired; playgoers passed through metal detectors Tuesday night.


***

By prevailing theatrical standards, Mr. McNally is an anomaly -- a playwright who continues to work regularly at his trade; who believes that a career in the theater is "its own reward," not a steppingstone to Hollywood, and, most significantly, who grows more accomplished with each successive play. His first effort, "And Things That Go Bump in the Night," was a notorious flop on Broadway in 1965, excoriated by the critics and booed by audiences. He persisted. Four years later, he enjoyed his first success Off Broadway, "Next," a one-act play about an overweight fortyish man who has to report for an Army induction physical.

"Since then, I've earned my living as a playwright, although I've had some pretty substandard years," Mr. McNally says. "There was one time, when I was well into my 30's, that I was down to $300 in the bank. And I've had apartments that when my mother would see them she would scream and burst into tears. But I consider myself lucky that I've never had to take another job."

WHEN TIME RECENTLY called him "the height of hot," however, even Mr. McNally felt that the magazine might be overstating the case. For all his hits, the huge, transforming triumph that can make a playwright a household name -- as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" did for Edward Albee or "Angels in America" seems to be doing for Tony Kushner -- has continued to elude him. "I've never had the experience of being universally championed," he admits. "If anything, I think people say, 'He's such a drudge. He turns out a play a year. God, why doesn't he shut up for a while?' 

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2019 Tony Awards: Lifetime Achievement - Terrence McNally


***

Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama
by John Clum

Chapter 1
And Things That Go Bump In The Night,
Edward Albee, And 
the New Gay Theater

“Probably the most overtly homosexual play yet seen on Broadway.”

Terrence McNally’s first original play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which opened on Broadway on April 26,1965, received a particularly nasty set of reviews and closed sixteen performances later. The producers kept the play open to large houses for its short run by reducing the ticket price to $1 and $2. One reviewer’s comment became so etched in McNally’s mind that he quotes it in It’s Only a Play: “The American theatre would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.”1 McNally claims to have forgotten who penned this attack. What most angered many of the critics was the overt, for its time, homosexuality of the play. McNally recalls that “And Things That Go Bump in the Night was considered really shocking because there were two gay men in it. In a way, I feel I’ve even been punished for it. That certainly wasn’t a masterpiece, but people were really shocked by the relationship between the two men.” Wilfrid Sheed called it “probably the most overtly homosexual play yet seen on Broadway.” The notoriously homophobic John Simon echoed the language of Leviticus when he wrote, “Well, now we have an honest-to-goodness homosexual play, and is it ever an abomination!”

It was daring, foolhardy perhaps, for an unknown playwright to try to conquer Broadway with a play like And Things That Go Bump in the Night. The hits of the 1964–1965 season were Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which opened the same month as McNally’s play, and the classic musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Edward Albee’s metaphysical drama, Tiny Alice, sprinkled with gay innuendo, had a respectable run of 175 performances, despite some nasty critical attacks and the general homophobia of reviewers at the time.

To understand the critical reaction to McNally’s play, one must remember the prevailing prejudices against gay men at the time supported by religion, psychiatry and the police. Homosexuals were considered sick and immoral, and homosexual acts were illegal. Linda Hirshman wrote, “In New York, being forbidden to appear gay in any public place put a high premium on closeting, effective covert behavior, and sign reading.”5 In his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, David Carter noted: “Eventually New York had the largest gay population in the United States, and the Village increasingly served as a center for the growing homosexual subculture. … Paradoxically, New York was also the city that most aggressively and systematically targeted gay men as criminals.” Carter went on to state that in the mid-1960s, when McNally’s And Things That Go Bump in the Night had its Broadway opening, “the very time when a wave of freedom, openness, and demand for change was cresting—New York City increased its enforcement of anti-homosexual laws to such an extent that it amounted to an attempt to impose police-state conditions onto a homosexual ghetto.”

More in the free preview...

***

''Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,'' which opens the main-stage season of the Manhattan Theater Club, has the timeless structure of romantic comedies: Will there be a second night to this odd couple's problematic one-night-stand? As one expects from Mr. McNally, the author of ''Bad Habits'' and ''It's Only a Play,'' the evening often floats by on bright and funny conversation, some of it dotted, however parenthetically, with jaundiced references to show business (''The Sound of Music,'' ''Looking for Mr. Goodbar,'' Kathleen Turner). But there has always been another side to Mr. McNally's highly lacquered sophistication: even his raucous gay-bath sex farce, ''The Ritz,'' had something poignant to say about transitory romantic attachments. In ''Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,'' the playwright examines his characters' connections with a new forthrightness and maturity, and it's just possible that, in the process, he's written the most serious play yet about intimacy in the age of AIDS.

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