Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune shares aspects of both romcom and kitchen sink drama tilting in accordance with director and actors. The 1987 piece was playwright Terrance McNally’s statement of positivity in light of economic downturn and AIDS- neither of which is actually mentioned. A mismatched pair struggle past what becomes their tumultuous first date to a possibly last chance relationship. It’s tender, romantic, pithy, and pointedly disconcerting, more so for being revived during Me Too awareness.
Waitress Frankie (Audra McDonald) and short order cook Johnny (Michael Shannon) return to her apartment from dinner and a film to tear each other’s clothes off and have passionate, vociferous sex. (Theatrically effective not the least due to glimpses of full nudity in terrific half light.) When Johnny gets the giggles, they become so contagious, Frankie falls out of bed breaking post-coital tension. It doesn’t last.
Clicking into habitual behavior, she speedily changes into a robe and picks up the room ready to eat something, watch television (“for company,” she explains even though he’s still there) and sleep. Frankie is as emotionally barricaded as any abused, fatalistic, middle aged woman can be. She expects her date to go home. Johnny, however, has no intention of leaving. (Welcome to Me Too considerations)
Much to her surprise, he lavishes poetic praise pitting declarations of love against her offhand lust. Some of this describes the (frankly stunning) face and body she doubts. (Kathy Bates in the original Off Broadway role and Edie Falco in 2002’s revival would’ve made this more believable, neither being classically beautiful.) Specific sexual terms likely landed even more resonantly thirty years ago. Johnny has found what he wants and needs. Frankie thinks him “creepy” and suspicious.
Though raised in curiously similar blue collar backgrounds, he had two years of college, appreciates classical music (a well employed device), liberally quotes Shakespeare- perhaps a bit too eloquently (he’s teaching himself), and objects to her using foul language. She, on the other hand is abrupt, practical, and partly from having dropped out of high school, defensively apologetic for not living up to expectations.
While Johnny has come through a period of bad behavior and self abuse, Frankie wears her past like a shroud. Aspects of respective history are slowly, deftly revealed. Comic moments intermittently soften. It’s a battle to the finish. Or perhaps, the start.
Though a fine actress, Audra McDonald is an odd choice for the role of Frankie. We believe she’s untrusting, pugnacious, and resigned to her life, but not the poor, uncultured upbringing of which this character is supposed to be the result. McDonald’s breeding peers through what appears to be an attempted accent and discomfort with swear words. Impact is ultimately moving, desperate hope and fatigue empathetic, but only partial.
Michael Shannon more fully embodies a working class environment- pulled up by its bootstraps, though he too might benefit from a lower class or geographic accent. All male and at ease in his (fine) body, Shannon makes Johnny’s desire warm, natural, and unselfconscious. Shoulders curve in rather than peacock back; he slouches into chairs. The actor imbues Johnny with sufficient strength and singularity of mind to overpower adding a shadowy dimension to proceedings, yet better nature is credible. He’s marvelous.
Director Arin Arbus uses confined space with imagination and plausibility, including scenes partly spoken from another room. Distinct differences in physical bearing and the way the two characters touch one another works wonderfully. Preparation of food (it’s really heated) and eating is without artifice. Interactions such as Frankie’s tending to an inadvertently perpetrated wound and awkward dancing shine.
On one hand, the Hell’s Kitchen Set by Ricardo Hernandez shows nothing at all personal beyond messiness, on the other, it’s suitably defeated. Low hanging lights are, however, disconcerting against a brick wall rising up and into the wings.
Emily Rebholz’ Costumes aptly fit characters. Natasha Katz’ Lighting Design is discreet and evocative.
Photos by Deen Van Meer
Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune
by Terrance McNally
Directed by Arin Arbus Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th Street