×

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.

With:
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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content