The title of Terrence McNally’s two-character play, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, is based on the names of two very different song classics. Connections with the first, about a pair of star-crossed lovers, are obvious from the get-go. And although any connections to the second prove as elusive as the haunting piece by Claude Debussy, it’s almost as if director Arin Arbus has helped her two stars, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, find them in the rhythm of the words they speak.
Given references to Prizzi’s Honor, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond, and VCRs, the otherwise effective revival of Frankie and Johnny–now on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre–can feel rather dated. The play debuted, after all, in 1987, and McNally’s ambition for realism makes such references natural, if not exactly necessary. But it’s still a substantial look at a one-night stand between Frankie, a waitress, and Johnny, a short-order cook at the same off-stage restaurant.
Set in Frankie’s “cramped” apartment–the realistic set was designed by Riccardo Hernández–it opens with the two of them in a climactic moment of lovemaking, as Frankie has mounted Johnny before they switch positions. And in a way, they keep switching positions in other respects as well, as the two of them awkwardly attempt to form a meaningful and binding relationship.
Under the careful guidance of director Arbus, that awkwardness is brought to real life by McDonald as Frankie and Shannon as Johnny. For one thing, Johnny keeps talking too much, even as he seems to have little to say. Frankie, for her part, is brushing her hair, after putting on a robe and saying, “I’m glad what happened, happened,” adding, “If we both play our cards right, maybe it will happen again.”
But it’s when Johnny says, “What people see in one another is a total mystery,” that he’s summing up the entire play. For as realistic as McNally and these particular actors make Frankie and Johnny, their attraction to each other remains a mystery. On another hand, along with their obvious awkwardness is their desperation to avoid being alone–as we eventually learn, Johnny is 47, Frankie 40–and that, more than anything else, is what gives the play its meaning.
Nevertheless, while Johnny says that he loves Frankie and thinks they should get married, Frankie is reluctant, at first. She even says, “This is worse than ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar,’” which is how the Goodbar reference enters the scene, before adding, like Garbo, “I want to be alone.”
And if it’s hard not to hear the playwright speaking when Johnny says, “We don’t need last names. We’re Frankie and Johnny,” it also reveals that McNally set out for his characters to be as generic as possible. It’s not until the end of the play that we learn any specifics about who they are, including that Johnny has an ex-wife and two children–and was an alcoholic–and that Frankie was never married.
Whether scratching her ear or crossing her arms, McDonald creates Frankie through many expressive hand gestures, which also point to the physicality of the play. But she’s especially plaintive near the end, curled up like a ball in a chair. Shannon is also physically engaged throughout, kissing Frankie’s hands or scrambling the two of them some eggs, also near the end.
If McNally gets the glorious Debussy piece into the play by having Johnny request a radio DJ play the Clair de Lune for Frankie (the play’s effective sound design is by Nevin Steinberg), Natasha Katz’s lighting design practically gives us four players, frequently creating shadow versions of Frankie and Johnny, even as, in the end, they remain shadows of who they might have become.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (through July 28, 2019)
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-Broadway or visit https://www.Broadway.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission