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A CurtainUp Review
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
In this second Broadway revival, they are also being played by two very familiar, attractive and lauded actors, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. That is not necessarily a plus with regard to the necessities of the play. When the lights come on, we find out that Frankie (McDonald), a 40ish waitress, has brought Johnny (Shannon), a recently hired short-order cook, home to her modest West 50s apartment for what she assumed would be a quick roll in the hay.
Neither she nor Johnny are fast and loose swingers. But apparently Frankie has had her eye on this very talkative, Shakespeare-reading omelet-flipper ever since he first arrived at the greasy spoon. An early movie followed by late sex, some polite small talk and a cordial exit line are all Frankie was really expecting from Johnny.
But wonder of wonders, Johnny isn't about to quit or leave Frankie to her nightly ritual of ice cream and TV. Johnny babbles on and Frankie balks. When Johnny tells Frankie he could watch her comb her hair forever, she snaps back "Get real." The more attentive, intimate and amorous Johnny gets, the more Frankie is apt to say something like "I don't know if you're playing games or if you're serious."
Frankie and Johnny are both playing their own game—the game for lovers over 40 who have been through the mill and are desperately in need of new defenses against old hurts. While Frankie finds it difficult to believe in Johnny's inexplicable, ever-increasing interest in her, Johnny finds it difficult to understand why she stubbornly resists his desire for them "to connect."
The heart of McNally's play consists of Johnny refueling the emotional fires that Frankie continually douses with icy and sometimes angry retorts. It explores the bonding of two lonely people who eventually come to discover that they have more reasons to connect than not to.
Frankie and Johnny . . . tries so hard to delight us with uncompromised frankness and cleverness and moment-to-moment unpredictability that it begins to spin out of control and out of our willingness to give a hoot. The biggest obstacle this production has about two ordinary people is that neither McDonald nor Shannon can alter the fact that they are not ordinary but rather extraordinary actors simply having a good time romp. The incessant baiting and bantering becomes wearisome over the course of two acts.
It becomes readily apparent McNally did not write about casual seduction or promiscuous sex in this play that was written during an age of acute anxiety. It is rather more about the discovery of what is right, not what is wrong about people needing people.
McDonald, who collects Tony Awards like Meryl Streep collects Oscars, is known for her memorable musical theater roles ( Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess , Ragtime ) as well as her lauded performances in straight plays ( A Raisin in the Sun, Master Class ). She is no less an empowering presence in this play as the merciless, wit-endowed pessimist Frankie. Shannon, who was so memorable in Long Day's Journey Into Night , shows off his abs along with his lighter side as Johnny the optimistic, if relentlessly pushy Casanova.
Riccardo Hernandez's setting suggests the largest one-room walk-up tenement on the entire West Side. I'll take it.
The moon of 2019 may not be as blue as it was in 1987, but McNally's plays ( Love! Valour, Compassion!, Master Class and others spanning six decades) reflect his remarkable insight into human behavior. My major qualm with this production, under the attentive direction of Arin Arbus, is that the play set in front of us is arguably less about Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune than it is about Audra and Michael in the spotlight.
The original Manhattan Theatre Club production in 1987 starred Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh. That was pre-Curtanup's existence. We did, however review a number of subsequent productions, including the Broadway one that starred Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci. To read our review of that go here
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Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Directed by Arin Arbus
Cast: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon
Sets: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Sound: Nevin Steinberg
Hair, Wig and Makeup: J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager: Laurie Goldfeder
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Broadhurst Theatre 235 West 44th Street 212.239.6200
From 5/04/19; opening 5/30/19; closing 8/25/19
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman 5/25/198
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