Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Photo by Deen van Meer.
Terrence McNally's adult romance, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, begins with a hot hook-up, but will this sizzle build up to full steam ahead? Will it evolve into true love or end as an earth-moving one-night stand? In a perceptive revival of the 1987 dramedy, neither Frankie, a waitress in a greasy diner, nor Johnny, the diner's short-order cook, is quite sure how it will all play out, but these stars grab hold of the play's impassioned heart and relish every moment.
Audra McDonald plays Frankie, and Michael Shannon is Johnny, two lonely people who already know the ropes about middle-age love affairs. While both long for the real thing, intimacy, trust, and passion, Frankie has been abused and shields herself with cynicism and Johnny has had his own missteps through a hyperkinetic neediness for a connection. Frankie's years of distrust combined with Johnny's longing, does not bode well for a lifelong partnership.
Directed by Arin Arbus, this first moonlit night together opens in the shadows of a bed where they make love with unrestrained growls and moans, followed by insuppressible laughter until Frankie tumbles off the bed. Behind them, we hear the soft notes of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" on late night radio, and by the time dawn breaks, their relationship seems hopeful. Or at least, tentative.
But the night is long, and emotions swing all over Hell's Kitchen in Frankie's cramped studio apartment, appropriately shabby as designed by Riccardo Hernandez and the lighting by Natasha Katz. Frankie and Johnnie both interpret McNally's awareness of human behavior. McDonald delves deep, delivering the essence of her character who never had a chance to move ahead in life. A six-time Tony winner, she finds the touching layered core of a complex woman who lacks self-confidence and is sensitive under a protective shell.
Shannon's audacious portrait of Johnny's long-winded obsessiveness could make anyone edgy, especially a woman who has already been brutally abused. While the original play was written in the era of AIDS with its sheer danger of making love, the #MeToo movement offers an understanding of Frankie's fear of commitment. When she orders Johnny to go home, she is palpably frightened, her expressive face fearful when he refuses. (Not only does he refuse to leave, he proposes marriage.) It is difficult to understand why that first night even lasts till dawn and perhaps even beyond, but McNally shows sympathy for both characters, troubled as they are.
Maybe the answer comes when Johnny calls the radio station and requests that they play "the most beautiful song in the world." He does not know the name. He later tells Frankie, "This wall of disparity between us, Frankie, we gotta break it down. So the only space left between us is just us."
Yet that space is vast. While they share the ambiance of moonlight on the fire escape, they also find a lot to quibble about, from marriage to meatloaf sandwiches and western omelets. As comfortable as they are with their nudity, going to the toilet and brushing their teeth, they still are faced with the dilemma of trust and its evitable slow build.
McNally's characters and his dialogue are crisp and engaging. With McDonald's articulate nuances and Shannon's quirky humor and yearning, there is an incandescent humanity in their characters. Although they may never learn the actual name of that romantic Debussy music, Frankie and Johnny will remember that moonlit night.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
235 West 44th Street. NYC
Previews: May 4, 2019. Opening: May 5, 2019. Closing: Aug. 25, 2019
Running Time: Two hours, 25 min. One intermission.
Cast: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Directed: Arin Arbus
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors, June 2019
Also can be read on TotalTheater.com