New York City Theater
"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"
Acting can be imitative or transformative, working from outside or inside. As the title characters in the revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” Terrence McNally’s 1987 ode to the lonely and lovelorn, two true stars, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, so transform themselves from glamorous to mundane that a theatergoer may have to consult the program to make sure he’s in the right playhouse..
McDonald is Frankie, a weary, polite, insecure waitress who works in the same restaurant as Shannon’s Johnny, a short-order cook who quotes Shakespeare and is desperate for coupling. With both, it’s what you see is not what you get for both have desires so long hidden, they’re practically invisible.
They’re the walking wounded, victims –and survivors -- of disastrous experiences. “This is not a spontaneous person you see before you,” says Frankie who can reference Freud. One of the play’s treasures is McNally’s making his characters unlettered but not unlearned.
Although Frankie wants Johnny to leave after their love-making, he hangs on, now enamored of her and desiring a deeper, more permanent connection, turning a one-night stand into, perhaps, a lifelong involvement. Feeding their emotions while feeding their stomachs with a cold meatloaf sandwich, they make love to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” heard on the radio following Johnny’s request to the station to play “the most beautiful music ever written.”
Out the window they can see warnings of dangerous road blocks. An older couple is so used to each other, they rarely speak. Another couple is apparently in a sado-masochistic relationship. For Frankie and Johnny, who have known despair as well as isolation, such end results will, they hope, be subsumed by their openness.
Arin Arbus’ direction is romantic as well as realistic. But it’s not sentimental. Rather, she emphasizes the considerable comedy that blurs the evening’s repetitiveness. After all, there’s only so much variety in a non-melodramatic two-hander but McNally’s dialogue is sharp and witty.
McDonald’s Frankie hides her feelings, puzzled about having them awakened. (“Everybody has scars,” she says.) Wrapping her arms around herself for protection, she’s fearful of coming out of her shell. When she does, it’s heartbreaking. Shannon conveys Johnny’s sweetness and doltishness, willing to admit his faults, free with his emotions. Pairing who he is with what he’d like to be, Shannon makes Johnny’s journey into a new beginning quite touching.
McNally places his needy couple in a seedy, one-room Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Contrasting these moonstruck people with earthbound surroundings, Riccardo Hernández’s set design and Natasha Katz’s lighting mix melancholy with pity. Human connections don’t require fancy décor.
--David A. Rosenberg
June 20, 2019