Theater review by Adam Feldman
The latest revival of Terrence McNally’s 1987 mournfully romantic two-hander, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, begins with a full moon: Michael Shannon’s, rising and falling as his nude body pounds away at another body beneath him, soon revealed to be Audra McDonald’s. The pull-out bed in Frankie’s Clinton apartment is shabby, and these two lovers—co-workers at a Greek diner, hooking up for the first time—are not the stuff of Hollywood movies. (As Johnny later describes them, they are “a man and a woman. Not young, not old. No great beauties, either one.”) But Bach is playing on the radio, so maybe there’s hope for them to forge a bond beyond one night. Johnny certainly thinks so; he’s tired of drifting through life alone, and sees a kindred spirit in the defeated, self-conscious Frankie. “We gotta connect,” he tells her. “We just have to. Or we die.”
It is curious to see McNally’s play so soon after the Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This: Both are stories about a man who won’t take no for an answer and a woman who might, after considerable hesitation, be cajoled into loving him; both seem, on some level, like responses by gay 1980s playwrights to the question of passion in the age of AIDS. (When Frankie cuts herself, Johnny sucks the blood from her finger.) When Johnny refuses to leave Frankie’s apartment, even after she threatens to call the police, the creepiness factor is hard to avoid, especially since Shannon has used his lanky frame and craggy face to convey menace so successfully in the past. But for more than two hours, these highly gifted actors—directed by Arin Arbus, and beautifully lit by Natasha Katz—keep a sensitive focus on the gawky humanity of their characters, holding steady through the ups and downs of McNally’s emotional ride. They connect, and they draw us in.
Broadhurst Theatre (Broadway). By Terrence McNally. Directed by Arin Arbus. With Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.