In its ultimately lovely if overlong Broadway revival, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” begins with loud grunting and shrieking, amid glimpses of breasts and buttocks in the dim light of a dingy tenement apartment, as Audra McDonald as Frankie and Michael Shannon as Johnny go at it on her fold-out bed. Immediately after they’ve finished having sex, Johnny tells Frankie a long anecdote about farting, and then Frankie retreats to the bathroom, keeping the door open and visibly sitting on the toilet.
This is how playwright Terrence McNally in this 1987 play introduces us to the story of two ordinary middle aged people who are hooking up for the first time. They are a waitress and a short order cook, co-workers who barely know one another; Frankie expects this to be no more than a one-night stand that won’t even last the whole night. But the unusually graphic earthiness of the opening seems to be director Arin Arbus’s attempt to co-opt one of the two criticisms that this production seemed likely to receive. The director at the get-go is downplaying the inherent glamour of her two performers, who are not in the least bit ordinary
Since one way that Shannon and McDonald are extraordinary is in their acting, it’s hard to get into high dudgeon over their grace and good looks. If ex-model Charlize Theron could play a monstrously ugly serial killer, surely the beautiful Audra McDonald can play a character who has what the script describes as “striking but not conventional good looks.” No, Audra McDonald is not Kathy Bates, who originated the role of Frankie — but neither was Michelle Pfeiffer, who portrayed Frankie to Al Pacino’s Johnny in the 1991 movie.
In the old, popular song, Frankie shoots Johnny for two-timing her. But McNally’s play is full of a different kind of music — Bach, Scriabin, Shostakovich , Wagner and Debussy, author of the classic composition that is the second half of the play’s title. These pieces are playing successively on the radio, which is turned to a classical music station, as the two joke and laugh together; make small talk; reluctantly reveal sadnesses in their pasts and their sense of failure in the present; express their wants and their worries… reveal their personalities.
Those personalities don’t immediately mesh. Although they find they have much superficially in common — both turn out to be from Allentown, Pennsylvania, both lost their mothers at the age of seven — what they want is different. Johnny wants them to fall in love, get married and have children. Frankie, unnerved by his weird rush into romance, tells Johnny to leave her apartment at 3 a.m.. He refuses. She threatens to call the police. He tells her to go ahead: “They’ll make me leave but I’ll be right back. That’s a very handy fire escape.”
This scene plays out as more creepy in 2019 than it probably did in 1987. There are several other moments in the play that buttress the notion that Johnny is just speechifying here to be dramatic. (At one point, for example, Frankie points to a neighboring window, and describes how the husband is abusive; Johnny is repulsed.) Nevertheless, the scene where he all but threatens her feels like a misstep, and probably could have been cut without discernible loss or damage to the whole. Indeed, in general, “Frankie and Johnny” might have worked better as a 90-minute one-act play. Still, even at its full two hours (plus intermission) over two acts, the play has enough humor, delicate pathos, specificity of detail and psychological complexity to showcase McNally’s skills as a dramatist. There is some careful craft in “Frankie and Johnny,” especially in the presence of the music, which literally underscores McNally’s heartwarming, romantic message. By learning about their ordinary lives while listening to the sublime beauty of the music, we get the point that the ordinary can be sublime; As the music plays and the full moon shines through the dirty blinds, Frankie and Johnny both seem to understand that even longtime “losers” can be ennobled by beauty, and have a chance at love.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Written by Terrence McNally; Directed by Arin Arbus. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Nevin Steinberg, hair, wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Featuring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Frankie and Johnny is on stage through August 25, 2019