BWW Review: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon Make Rapturous Music in Terrence McNally's FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE
"I guess I want you to play the most beautiful music ever written and dedicate it to us," a hopeful romantic requests of the radio station he's phoned from his date's apartment.
Shortly after, her clock radio is playing the heavenly Claude Debussy composition that gives Terrence McNally's gritty romance between damaged souls, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, its title. The fellow turns off a lamp and they make love bathed in the moonlight shining through the window of her one-room Hell's Kitchen walkup, and one can only feel pity for a heart that isn't lifted into rapturous bliss.
McNally's two-character play, set during those early morning "what now?" hours immediately after a pair that only casually knows each other has had sex for the first time, is wonderful. Director Arin Arbus' production, which handily deals with the 1987 piece's moments that might cause uneasiness with contemporary audiences, floats lovingly across the Broadhurst stage as co-stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon skillfully explore the delicate details of the many ways we may choose to expose ourselves to one another.
Set designer Riccardo Hernandez places Frankie's modest digs in a sea of anonymous brownstone windows, a reminder that we're getting a peek at just one of millions of Gotham dramas playing out during the midnight hours.
Co-workers at a greasy spoon (the actual kind, not the ironically trendy kind), the audience gets its first glimpse of fry-cook Johnny and waitress Frankie as they conclude a mutually satisfying first sexual encounter. ("No one's that good at faking it," is her reply to his inquiry.)
While the exact details of what led to the evening's connection aren't disclosed, it's soon apparent that Frankie was seeking little more than a good-looking, well-built guy to let off some steam with before feeding him a meatloaf sandwich and sending him back home to Brooklyn Heights.
Johnny, who keeps a dictionary and a Shakespeare volume in his locker, has something more permanent in mind with the former actress who tends to keep to herself.
And this is where the play can get a little dicey, as Johnny flippantly dismisses Frankie's clear insistence that he's not staying the night. Naturally, individuals will size up that situation as it strikes them, in regards to the risks people take when inviting someone to be alone with them. But this is not what McNally was writing about over three decades ago, so part of Arbus' job - and this is something she's referred to in interviews - is to ensure the audience is comfortable with Johnny's physical presence.
Though this is a man who uses charm as a means for survival, there is a believable sincerity in Shannon's performance that combats thoughts of needy creepiness. His effusive way of expressing himself, sometimes without possessing the exact language to convey the artistry of his thoughts, can be very attractive to one who is open to receiving his passion.
A telling moment comes when Johnny convinces Frankie to allow him to just look at her nude figure standing before him. With her back to the audience, McDonald opens up her robe and what we see on Shannon's face is not lust or desire, but a tender appreciation for a work of art.
And yes, that can be regarded as objectification. The success of the play very much hinges on the defensive Frankie's reactions to this oddly fanciful man who doesn't just accept a quick round of sex and goes home. Fortunately, we have the intelligent acting skills of one of contemporary Broadway's best displaying the complexities of this woman's thought process.
As scripted by McNally and illuminated by McDonald, Frankie doesn't seem concerned about her physical safety at the moment. It's her emotional safety if she decides to open herself up to future possibilities with Johnny that is her greater concern. As the play progresses to the second act, it takes more than opening a robe to reveal oneself, and more than mere artistic appreciation to accept what is before you.
There's only so much of life, and of Frankie and Johnny, that can be romanticized by a blanket of moonlight.