You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Broadway Review: ‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune’

Isn’t it romantic? Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon play downbeat, but lovable lovers, in this simpatico mainstem revival of Terrence McNally’s 1987 play.

Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon

A sentimental reading would mean death for this surprisingly delicate two-hander about the tentative one-night stand of two restaurant workers in Hell’s Kitchen during the plague years of the AIDS epidemic. (“Are we really killing each other?” one asks the other, after they’ve done the dangerous deed.) But helmer Arin Arbus (associate director of Theater for a New Audience) and her high-toned cast of two – Michael Shannon, who can do anything, and Audra McDonald, who can do anything while looking gorgeous – bring this historical artifact to warm-blooded life.

Frankie (McDonald) is a waitress at the hash joint in Hell’s Kitchen where Johnny (Shannon) is “the knight of the grill,” and they both seem surprised at having spent the night together. (Credit Riccardo Hernandez’s set and Natasha Katz’s lighting for the desperate dreariness of Frankie’s one-room apartment.) But neither of them has any regrets, and once they get past those awkward morning-after moments, they settle into the nice-and-easy rhythms of strangers who discover they speak the same language.

“You are a very intense person,” says Frankie, who wants this one-night stand to remain a one-night stand and is unnerved by Johnny’s craving for something more than that.

“You want too much,” she intuits. Indeed, he does, and he admits it. “I want you,” he tells her, “and I’m coming after you.”

How sexy a line is that? And sexy is exactly what other actors (Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino among them) have made of Frankie and Johnny in various revivals of the play. If memory serves, Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh, who originated the roles in 1987, were entirely faithful to McNally’s own vision. And despite the fact that McDonald in the raw is physically stunning, she and Shannon make an earnest attempt to give the characters the commonplace quality that makes them so disturbingly endearing.

McDonald makes something palpable – a sudden, trapped look of panic – of Frankie’s fear of commitment. And Shannon is positively electrifying when he turns downstage and reveals Johnny’s aching need to reach out and hold someone very, very close.

While it may seem shallow to make such a big deal about physical beauty, the characters’ relative ordinariness is vital to the play. After all, McNally was writing about the essential need to make human connections in an era when sexual unions were a life-and-death matter. In that context, physical allure is beside the point when the sexual act itself is a life-affirming act of bravery.

In 1987, the play’s sub-textual message was a no-brainer. Everyone knew then that playing at sex was playing with fire, and McNally had no reason to spell it out. But because there’s no need-to-know subtext to a modern-day production like this one, there’s always the danger that the story of Frankie and Johnny might seem shallow because nothing more than a love story is at stake. Nothing more, perhaps, than a love story, but my, how those lovers can love.

Broadway Review: 'Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune'

Broadhurst Theater; 1,156 seats; $159 top

Production: A Hunter Arnold, Debbie Bisno, and Tom Kirdahy production, with Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, Caiola Productions / Sally Cade Holmes, Jamie deRoy / Gary DiMauro, FedermanGold Productions, Barbara H. Freitag / Ken Davenport, Kayla Greenspan / Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf, Invisible Wall Productions, Peter May, Tyler Mount, Seriff Productions, Silva Theatrical Group, and Tilted Windmills / John Paterakis, of a play in two acts by Terrence McNally. Opened May 30, 2019. Reviewed May 22. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Creative: Directed by Arin Arbus. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Nevin Steinberg

Cast: Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon

More Legit

  • Annette Bening

    Star-Studded Cast to Perform Live Reading of the Mueller Report

    Haven’t perused the Mueller report yet? A star-studded cast, including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, and John Lithgow, can read it to you. For one night only on Monday, June 24, stars will perform a live reading of passages from the Mueller report for “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” Robert Schenkkan’s [...]

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. More Reviews [...]

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream review

    London Theater Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

    “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” can be many things. There are earthy “Dreams,” airy “Dreams,” saucy “Dreams” and sweet “Dreams.” It’s Shakespeare’s most malleable play. Nicholas Hytner’s new staging strives to set itself apart, plunging its immersive audience into a festival-style fairy kingdom and casting the ethereal, white-blonde Gwendoline Christie (fresh off “Game of Thrones”) as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content