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It’s easy to see why Terrence McNally’s 1987 romantic two-hander is being presented on Broadway less than 20 years after its last incarnation. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, about one very long night in which two lonely souls debate whether or not to take a chance on love, is a veritable feast for actors. And in the new revival directed by Arin Arbus, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon wolf it down with gusto.
First performed in 1987 in a landmark off-Broadway production starring Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham, and later adapted into a mediocre 1991 film starring a miscast Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, the play is set in a cramped Hell’s Kitchen apartment (in the days when it still was Hell’s Kitchen). As the story begins, the title characters are engaging in very vigorous and very loud sex, followed by a burst of uncontrolled hysterical laughter that results in Frankie falling out of bed. A waitress and a short-order cook who work together in a greasy spoon diner, Frankie and Johnny clearly have more than a few miles under their belt.
Frankie would like nothing more than for Johnny to make her a cold meatloaf sandwich and then leave. But he has other ideas. He’s decided that for one time in his life, he won’t throw away the possibility of happiness. Against her vociferous objections, he intends to break down “this wall of disparity between us,” and essentially spends the rest of the night desperately trying to convince her to take a chance on him.
The ensuing verbal pas de deux, frequently as hilarious as it is touching, forms the heart of the play. And this is a play with plenty of heart, at least for anyone who’s wrestled with the idea of leaping into the existential void that committing to another person entails. Frankie has been beaten down repeatedly by life, and has good reasons to resist the passionate entreaties of this virtual stranger who professes to be in love with her after one torrid assignation and who at one point insists that she open her robe just so he can take in the beauty of her nether regions. But Johnny’s passion is ultimately hard to resist, especially when accompanied by the titular Debussy composition, aired on the radio after he’s made a special request to hear “the most beautiful music ever written.”
This revival feels a bit glammed up compared to the acclaimed 2002 Broadway production starring Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, and it’s not only because of Riccardo Hernandez’s oversize set featuring the looming exterior of Frankie’s apartment building as a backdrop. It could be argued that the casting is not ideal. Six-time Tony winner McDonald seems too elegant for the earthy Frankie, while two-time Academy Award nominee Shannon’s history of playing villains makes his Johnny come across as almost threatening — especially, and unfortunately, in the current #MeToo era. It’s also hard to believe either of them has trouble finding romantic partners (neither performer shies away from full nudity at times).
And yet, the brilliant actors make it work. McDonald superbly conveys her character’s cynicism through world-weary body language and vocal inflections. And Shannon unveils his formidable, and too rarely seen, comic talents to hilarious effect; his Johnny is the funniest I’ve ever seen. If the resulting laughfest slightly dilutes the play’s poignancy, McNally’s writing is strong enough to provide the requisite emotion. Their superb work proves that Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune offers both timeless themes and eternal catnip to talented performers.
Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York
Cast: Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Arin Arbus
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Presented by Hunter Arnold, Debbie Bisno, Tom Kirdahy, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, Caiola Productions/Sally Cade Holmes, Jamie deRoy/Gary DiMauro, FedermanGold Productions, Barbara H. Freitag/Ken Davenport, Kayla Greenspan/Jamie Joeyen Waldorf, Invisible Wall Productions, Peter May, Tyler Mount, Seriff Productions, Silva Theatrical Group and Tilted Windmills/John Paterakis
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