Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon Shine in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Terrence McNally's play about a one-night stand receives a Broadway revival with two of the theater's best actors.
In the beginning, there's sex — but not light. On the darkened stage of the Broadhurst Theatre, we can just make out the shadowy image of two bodies rolling around on a sofa bed. But we sure can hear them: panting, grunting, and softly singing a high note in elegant vibrato. That last bit is the contribution of Audra McDonald, who is starring opposite Michael Shannon in the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Gorgeously acted, this sophisticated two-hander from 1987 offers some surprisingly prescient insights about love in the age of Tinder.
The exuberant joy of sex gives way to exposition as we meet Frankie (McDonald) and Johnny (Shannon). They work at the same Manhattan diner, she as a waitress and he as a short-order cook. But on this Saturday night, they've crossed the Rubicon from coworkers to sexual partners. Frankie is happy to leave it at that, but Johnny would like to follow this road all the way to Rome, suggesting marriage and even children. As the afterglow fades to a pale glimmer, she really just wants him out of her apartment so she can watch TV and eat ice cream in peace.
Most anyone who has spent a period of time as a sexually active single person will recognize this scenario: the one-night stand that refuses to end. Some of the happiest marriages I know started exactly this way, and that seems to be what Johnny is hoping for. As played by Shannon, he is gnarled yet optimistic, seemingly convinced that whatever this relationship lacks in happiness, he can make up for with sheer determination. Pushing 50 and carrying the baggage of an unfortunate past, he hunts for an opportunity to compliment Frankie with all the grace of a boxer desperate to land a punch. "You have a beautiful pussy," he tells her, asking to see her vagina in the light of the moon. It's a crude line coming from a weird guy, and after some initial eye-rolling, she accedes.
McDonald is heartbreaking as Frankie, the failed actor toiling away in a job she didn't want in order to pay rent on an apartment she doesn't like. As stalwart New Yorkers do, she has developed calluses to make that uncomfortable situation bearable, and she doesn't appreciate Johnny's attempts to pick at them. When he tells her that she "talks nice," she responds with string of expletives that garner rapturous cheers from the women in the theater. She can see exactly what's happening: Johnny has fallen for a woman he's made up in his head, not the one actually in front of him. Yet in her incredulous expression, it is possible to see the faintest hint of capitulation as she entertains the thought, Maybe Johnny's delusion would be a happier place to live than Hell's Kitchen.
That's a difficult story to tell when private sex has become such a public battlefield. In the age of #MeToo, the correct response would be for Johnny to leave the first time Frankie asks him to — and yet he persists. It is a testament to both Shannon's finely tuned performance and Arin Arbus's sensitive direction that this behavior never crosses the line from eccentric to threatening. McDonald and Shannon dexterously convey the push-pull tension between Frankie and Johnny: They're too old and jaded for it to be called flirtation, but also invested enough for it to never morph into sexual harassment.
Arbus beautifully creates the environment of this impromptu date: At first, Riccardo Hernández's set feels ludicrously airy for a studio apartment on 10th Avenue, yet it proves to be just the right fit for these monumental performances. The rotary phone and vintage refrigerator place this production firmly in the late '80s, when such fixtures would have already been outdated (although not in a rent-stabilized apartment). Lighting designer Natasha Katz strikingly bathes the space in moonlight, which contrasts with the jaundiced interior glow of Frankie's bathroom.
The third (and uncredited) voice in the room is a DJ on an all-night classical radio station, who treats Frankie and Johnny to "the most beautiful music ever written" (noted in the title) before cruelly thwarting their attempt at a second round with Wagner (this being a McNally play). Sound designer Nevin Steinberg peppers the fuzzy Bach and Debussy with the low din of sirens and dogs. Hernández's backdrop of endless apartment windows and fire escapes collaborates with the muscular soundscape to remind the audience that even in their privacy, Frankie and Johnny are surrounded by other people.
In 2019, modern technology has extended to the rest of the world something New Yorkers have always felt: the sensation of loneliness amid a crowd. The little computers in our pockets offer myriad opportunities for sex without sensuality and passion without compassion, the sickly glow of their screens drawing our eyes away from the moonlight. With more ways than ever to connect, we've never been so disconnected. Frankie and Johnny might at first appear to be a curiosity of the 20th century, but it's actually an enduring portrait of postcoital possibility that has become richer with age — especially as we wake up to the reality that we need to get back to the basics when it comes to communicating with one another.