The revival of playwright Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” teams Audra McDonald as Frankie, a waitress, and Michael Shannon as Johnny, the restaurant cook, and they give dynamic performances that show their acting prowess. But the balance in the duet is off under the direction of Arin Arbus despite the impassioned performances.
Seeing the previous 2001 version that starred Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci as the middle-aged characters, I described them in my review as “two lost souls in need of each other.” In this new staging Shannon comes across as such an aggressive, lost-soul Johnny that Frankie would need him like a hole in the head. Under Arbus’s direction Johnny is the overwhelmingly needy one, while Frankie’s basic vulnerability, including her experience with an abusive lover and failed efforts to become an actress, part of the background ultimately revealed, doesn’t get equal treatment in the need department, which is mostly about overbearing Johnny in the tone set in this production.
Thus the sparring, while enhanced by the playwright’s funny and witty dialogue, doesn’t do justice to Frankie’s inner hunger for a fuller life than she has waitressing, while Johnny is tearing up the stage with his own hunger for a relationship and his total fixation on Frankie as the one to change his life. A basic difficulty in the play is that so much has to happen to make the couple totally connect in one long night that credibility is a problem. One has to root for the barriers to come down and the feeling that Frankie and Johnny are good for each other and will make it together. I felt like that with Falco and Tucci, but not here.
In the play’s setup, we hear the couple’s loud grunts of pleasure as they have sex in the bed in the center of Frankie’s Hell’s Kitchen studio apartment (scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, sound design by Nevin Steinberg). The lights are dim (lighting design by Natasha Katz), and we see the couple in the shadows. After having sex, there is some visible nudity and a burst of laughter by Frankie and Johnny, who have thoroughly enjoyed this sexual escapade on this first date following their having worked together for a long spell.
The play then moves into a situation in which Frankie fights back against Johnny’s dominating attitude and insistence on spending the night. He is colorful, quoting Shakespeare and being blunt about his sexual demands, although he feels inadequate when he is unable to perform in a second sexual round we hear about. She doesn’t hold that against him, but still needles him with her comments. Battling back against his persistence, Frankie wants him to leave, but he won’t go, frantically asserting that this is love and permanence. Frankie insists that she wants her space and that she is not ready for the kind of immediate commitment Johnny urges. There is even a nasty moment of physical conflict, and Johnny’s back is accidentally burned as Frankie shoves him against a stove. She regrets it, of course, and applies butter to his wound.
The relationship rages back and forth, ultimately leading to revelations about their respective working class pasts. They are supposed to reach eventual understanding and harmony, building to a climactic tender moment of mutual affection. However, with Johnny’s incessant powerfully demanding behavior, one might have the impression that Frankie might soon find the relationship impossible. Johnny, perhaps through Shannon’s entertaining overacting under Arbus’s directorial concept, is the dominating one, negating the idea of two lost souls blending.
Incidentally, the credits list Claire Warden as Intimacy and Fight director. Intimacy direction is a relatively new job in stage production. The purpose is to see that actors are comfortable with the way in which they must handle nudity and sexuality as productions become more candid. At the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed June 5, 2019.