Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 30, 2019
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally. Directed by Arin Arbus. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair, wig, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Intimacy and fight director Claire Warden. Cast: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
Arin Arbus, making her Broadway directing debut after a decade-long career at the Theatre for a New Audience, wisely allows us a brief opportunity for engaging in entrance applause (how could it be otherwise, really, with Ms. McDonald stepping out onto the stage) before a momentary blackout, followed by a good two or three minutes of graphic, loud, and voracious nude lovemaking by the two stars. There is no question that the sex scene and the follow-up fit of raucous laughter the pair fall into will galvanize your attention. But these are not directorial decisions. They are scripted by the playwright, who wants us to fully grasp the difference between the throes of in-the-moment sexual coupling and the far more complicated nature of an incipient relationship.
Frankie (Ms. McDonald) and Johnny (Mr. Shannon) work together at a restaurant. She is a waitress; he is a cook. They have been exchanging glances at work, but this is the first time they've actually gotten together. The play takes place in Frankie's inexpensive one-room walk-up apartment in the pre-gentrification Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York in the 1980s. The place is perfectly captured in Riccardo Hernández's set design, from its tiny clothes wardrobe and kitchenette to the bare radiator and fire escape. It is clearly intended for one person, and it seems to grow even smaller when the unleashed hormones retreat and Frankie's natural reticence and need for privacy set in.
Here is when McNally's gifts as a playwright and the performers' gifts as actors kick into high gear. In other works, McNally has rarely been shy about imposing his personal views, not even when the dialog sounds forced and pedantic (for an example, see Mothers and Sons). But not here. Through the play's careful design and the two supremely genuine actors, we are brought into the souls of the characters, both of whom are inexorably lonely but who deal with it in entirely different ways.
This is not a fussy play. After the initial explosive moments, it is focused on delineating its characters, both as individuals and in their interactions with each other. It is a play and a pair of performances whose richness lies in a million little details, including references to specific street addresses, to specific movies, to a specific skit from Saturday Night Live. And, if you are paying attention, you'll even pick up a reference to the AIDS epidemic.
Remarkably, none of this feels dated. This is a play about adults for adults. Ms. McDonald and Mr. Shannon breathe so much truth into their characters that the results are far more naked than the literal nudity we encounter at the very beginning. Michael Shannon's Johnny is a very talkative extrovert, sometimes comically random, sometimes scarily forceful. By the time we meet him he has decided that life is slipping by too quickly to worry about finding perfection in a partner. He has set his sights on Frankie, and he is using this night to convince her to take the risk with him for a more permanent relationship. "I'm tired of looking," he says. "Everything I want is in this room."
Understandably, Frankie, who is introverted and wary, has not reached this same conclusion, at least not consciously. She finds Johnny's insistent approach to be overwhelming and even threatening at times. "You're too needy. You want too much. I can't," she warns him. The entire evening is a seesaw of interplay like this, and while it ends on a hopeful note, it is not at all clear, as is true in real life, whether these two will wind up staying together.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is as open and honest about the human heart as anything you are likely to encounter on a Broadway stage, and the music that gives the play its title is reflected in the duet of the performances. It is a remarkable coda to the theater season that has just ended and a grand beginning to the new one.