Two thoughts occurred while watching the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which opened Thursday night at the Broadhurst Theatre (booking to Aug. 25). Why couldn’t this have opened a few weeks ago and been eligible for the Tony Awards? It would have been a strong contender for Best Revival of a Play, and its two stars, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, likely contenders for Best Actor/Actress in a Play.
Inevitable second thought: One hopes that Tony voters of 2020 have very long memories, because this is one delicious piece of theater.
The play opens with lights off, and sounds of sexual pleasure and the climax. Two minutes of moans and shrieks. And then the flesh of Frankie (McDonald) and Johnny (Shannon).
When the lights duskily come on after all that moaning, we are in Frankie’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are playing in the post-coital haze.
Frankie’s “God, I wish I still smoked. Life used to be so much more fun,” is the perfect opening line.
This beautifully written play has an odd set of concordances with Burn This: Both were originally performed in 1987, both are by gay men and focus tightly on a relationship between a self-contained woman and a blundering, invasive man who wants her, makes clear that he wants her, and won’t take no for an answer in his desire for her.
The production is anchored in two of the best performances currently on Broadway. McDonald and Shannon are a chemistry experiment made explosive, and made right.
They are a delight to watch, to cringe for, and to respond to; McNally’s beautiful script is a whip-crack, fast, and smart journey into sudden intimacy. Johnny wants to reveal and say everything. If Frankie could hide under a blanket, and have this all be over right now, she frequently would.
Shannon, who spends much of the play in just underwear, is wonderful as a loopy, craggy, nutty, melancholic, brooding Romeo. McDonald more than matches him as the exasperated, willfully elusive object, or target, of his insistent affections. These are two exceptional performances in total concert.
Just as in Burn This, the male character’s stalker-y, creepy persistence is supposed to be sexy. At least in Frankie and Johnny, Frankie actually, volubly, interrogates Johnny about his sanity and his continued presence in her apartment. She identifies that he seems mad. But he still stays. She doesn’t, as threatened, get the hell out of there or scream for help.
Frankie and Johnny’s writing is more generous and embracing to its female character than Burn This was toward its female principal, Anna. Frankie and Johnny feel like they could be equals, and are equally, if differently, scuffed by life. If you don’t root for them to be together, you root for them to figure out their tangle of neuroses and past, embedded pain together.
Director Arin Arbus skillfully maneuvers McDonald and Shannon around Riccardo Hernández’s cluttered set of messed-up bed and kitchen, where much vexed preparation of food takes place. It features a full background of New York apartment buildings, and then, hollowed out, Frankie’s apartment itself, with a little balcony upon which the couple gaze at the “clair de lune.”
That gazing at the moon isn’t a predictable romantic moment, and you don’t necessarily think Frankie and Johnny make the best couple. Their hurts and foibles are complementary. You wish them well, as the play unfolds, as you would a couple of mountaineers out to conquer a distant peak.
They work at the same restaurant, and on this night, have gone home together. The play picks up after the fantastic sex; Frankie really wants Johnny to go, while Johnny, utterly, moonily in love, wants to stay and connect. Cue both very funny and very painful excruciation. “Everybody has scars,” says Frankie, and the hurts, abuse suffered, and grievances of both characters are exposed if not resolved.
Johnny recalls the time he farted, while sleeping with a girl at high school. “There was no pretending it wasn’t me. You couldn’t say something like ‘Boy, did you hear that thunder?’ or ‘Jesus, Peggy, was that you?’”
Johnny gazes at Frankie, and then vocalizes that gazing. “I think a woman brushing and fixing her hair is one of the supremely great sights of life. I’d put it up there with the Grand Canyon and a mother nursing her child. Triumphant facts of nature.”
“You don’t look, you stare,” she shoots back. “It gives me the creeps. I suppose it’s very flattering, but it’s not something I feel real comfortable with. It’s like if you would send me a million roses, I’d be impressed but I wouldn’t know where to put them.”
“You’re too needy. You want too much,” she says.
McNally plays with Johnny getting very excited for having everything and anything in common; like coming from the same town, and both having a mother who left the family when they were aged 7. Both have complicated pasts.
She will not give in to him, as he wants. When he upbraids how she speaks, she says, “Well, fuck you how I talk! I’ll talk any fucking way I fucking feel like it! It’s my fucking apartment in the fucking first place and who the fuck are you to come in here and start telling me I talk nice?”
Johnny is determined, whatever her protests and shutdowns, that this is the right relationship, at least for that moment. “We may not make it to tomorrow. I might get knifed if you make me go home. You might choke on a chicken bone. Unknown poison gases could kill us both in our sleep. When it comes to love, life’s cheap and it’s short.”
In a nearby apartment, Frankie considers the female occupant being beaten by her male partner, a piece of horrible brutality that has invaded her everyday and one that has a piercing personal echo. Her past and her present has made her want to fold in on herself, to close herself off to protect herself. That is what Johnny is clumsily invading.
But even though Frankie says she wants to be alone, watch television and eat ice cream, sleep, and “stop worrying I’m trapped in my own apartment with a fucking maniac,” on the couple parry. She wants him to make a sandwich, when he just wants to have sex. Push, pull, prowl, flirt, advance, retreat: The play has a beguiling tempo, which McDonald and Shannon dance perfectly.
The play, furnished with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and the breaking light of day supplanting the moon, tries to find a beauty in its right circumstances, to insist, like its main characters, that this thing that McNally cares about, these moments of pause of beauty and classicism, have their place.
The DJ playing their songs on the radio reminded this critic of the DJ doing the same to a similarly uniting effect in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy.
This isn’t to say that Frankie and Johnny shows anything rose-tinted, but it does posit the idea that something—maybe love, maybe need, maybe narcissism, maybe passion, maybe exasperation, maybe empathy, maybe scars of all kinds, maybe a cocktail of all of that—can occasionally make the profound a close bedfellow of the horny as night casts its long, dark cloak; and even, maybe, as daylight breaks.