By: Isa Goldberg
June 6, 2019: Among the often repeated clichés that riddle the dialogue between Frankie and Johnny, one that is unspoken registers clearly. Love makes the world go round.
This revival of Frankie And Johnny In the Clair de Lune, marking the start of 2019-20 Broadway season, opens on Audra McDonald (Frankie) and Michael Shannon (Johnny) making love. Staged in the dark, and framed as if we’re watching the scene on television, it makes for a highly pleasurable voyeuristic experience. And it is graphic in the most positive sense.
Set (by Riccardo Hernandez) in Frankie’s walkup studio, the back of the apartment blends into the exterior brick wall of the tenement, and the fire escape forms the left side of her apartment. It’s an inside/outside world that puts their most intimate moments out there in the open. No wonder they’re feeling unprotected. They are just two of “the nine million, six hundred eighty-four thousand, four hundred eleven New Yorkers” trapped inside themselves, and fearful of intimacy.
As drawn by the playwright Terrence McNally, Frankie and Johnny are two ordinary, working class characters. However, with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon portraying the couple, we’re granted more than perfect bodies and movie star looks to appreciate, not to mention their outstanding acting.
Among the most beloved of Broadway stars, McDonald betrays her image here, portraying a high school dropout, a beaten, and wounded woman. As she forewarns Johnny, “I’m a BLT down sort of person and I think you’re looking for someone a little more pheasant under glass.” She has lots of life to share, but it’s been forged with grit, and shaped by bad breaks. And her romantic past explains why she’s scared of men. She tells Johnny “this is like looking for Mr. Goodbar”, all while he showers her with romantic affection.
Predictably, the action is subtle. But it’s still strategic, a kind of dance, like a Cha Cha in which he invades, she retreats. He injects humor, she gets angry. He’s gung ho, she’s wary. He wants to make love, she likes to eat. He’s a cook, she’s a waitress at the same Greek diner where they met.
That McNally’s two hander, running a full two acts is so vibrant, speaks to the subject; we get to connect with the feelings that love ignites. Also, the characters quick, and insightful repartee keeps us fully engrossed.
Still, it’s especially exciting to watch these two magnificent actors, who live nakedly on the stage, moment to moment. Together they make a meatball sandwich, listen to beautiful music, watch TV – a joyless event, and discover that they have so much in common. Beyond chemistry, they grow together, creating a form, like a spoon.
Their love, as one may anticipate in a McNally drama, is inspired by the beautiful music they hear. Listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune is not a small part of the theatrical experience. Interesting, though, that it’s Debussy. Like McNally’s play, Debussy’s music is known for its improvisational air.
Frankie And Johnny In the Clair de Lune ****1/2
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Running time: two hours and 15 mins. including intermission. $49—$159.
May 30—Aug. 25.
Photography: Deen van Meer