It’s only in the final moments of the moving new Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” that the consummate musician in Audra McDonald emerges.
True, McDonald — the consummate actor — has been onstage for just about two hours at that point. But only when her Frankie sits listening with quiet contemplation to the Debussy composition of the title do we glimpse McDonald’s breathtaking sensitivity to the nuances of music. Frankie, we see in a flash of, well, metaphorical moonlight, has discovered, in the course of an evening of casual sex and extended conversation, how a series of musical notes can communicate the deepest and most complex meanings, and even alter one’s perception of one’s life, and by extension the world.
It’s an aptly ironic ending, rich in poetic meaning, to this most insistently — at least on the surface — prosaic of plays, a romantic drama about a one-night stand between two seemingly unexceptional people that gradually transforms into a potentially life-changing night. And McDonald and her equally superb co-star, Michael Shannon, render its various colors and moods with admirable delicacy and grace, under the perfectly pitched direction of Arin Arbus.
Changes in American culture since the play’s 1987 debut, specifically the recent emergence of the #MeToo movement, might have threatened to render the play obsolete, or at least out of step with contemporary sexual mores. And you’d have to have emotional blinders on not to be made a little uncomfortable, hackles ready to raise, by some of the behavior of Shannon’s fiercely insistent Johnny, the short-order cook who happily falls into bed one night after a first date with the waitress from the diner where they both work.
Johnny’s stubborn refusal to exit Frankie’s apartment long after she has told him to go, and his insistent imploring that he has fallen, or is on the verge of falling, in love with her (and that she will soon return the feeling) undeniably strike a slightly discordant note today. His fulsome flattery can have an almost aggressive edge and grows worse when, at one point, Johnny begs, or orders, Frankie (depending on your point of view) to open her robe so he can gaze at will upon her genitalia — a moment that might wisely have been eliminated.
Fortunately Shannon and McDonald — playing the only two characters onstage — as well as Arbus seem to be clearly aware of the minefields to be avoided. In the way that it’s played, we are constantly attuned to the tension that simmers between the two characters, the sense that they are both equals engaged in a complex emotional (and sexual) dialogue, in which matters of right and reason — and consent — continually send clouds scudding across the moonlight of romance.
It is, in fact, Frankie’s fierce, occasionally ferocious resistance to Johnny’s will and determination to stay the course — and stay the night — that gives the play its most compelling new nuances. True, as written and originally played by Kathy Bates, Frankie is depicted as a most ordinary, and by some standards, not particularly beautiful woman; McDonald, who can regularly be seen on stages dressed to the nines in gala regalia, looking every inch the worship-inspiring diva, might not seem naturally cast as this most earthbound of women.
But let’s not forget that McDonald has six Tonys on her (proverbial) mantelpiece — including one in each acting category for which she is eligible — and here transforms herself quite handily into a figure of curtailed hopes and expectations, and a dogged sense that life will always disappoint her. As McDonald’s incisive performance makes achingly clear, it’s easier for Frankie to cut her losses, wash that man out of her hair, and get back to the hard business of life itself. McDonald is particularly fine when registering, repeatedly, Frankie’s strength of will and character (“Everybody has scars,” she retorts starkly at one point), and her unwillingness to be badgered into admitting to feelings she doesn’t (yet) feel.
Shannon, with his graven features, as of a longshoreman in a perpetually bad mood, is more naturally cast as ordinary-guy Johnny, a dese-dem-dose type who is, unexpectedly, inwardly imbued with the kind of swooning need for love that one might more readily associate with heroines of treacly 1930s romance movies. And Shannon never slides into moony soppiness about the miracle of what might just happen between him and Frankie. Even when he is most lyrically besotted, flashes of the grinding misfortunes that Johnny has endured haunt Shannon’s slightly haggard features. But it is, as Shannon’s high-pitched near-desperation intimates, just because Johnny has weathered many an emotional storm that he recognizes the sudden possibility of a permanent break in the weather: Maybe only those who have endured loss and disappointment as Johnny has (a failed marriage, a stint in jail) can hope with quite the manic fervency he does.
Were it written today, I suspect “Frankie and Johnny” would clock in at a crisp 80 or 90 minutes. At almost two-and-a-half hours (including intermission), the play — which takes place entirely in the course of one night, essentially in real time — can seem to overelaborate the simplicity of its plot — leaving us at times sharing a little of Frankie’s exasperation at Johnny’s continued presence in her small apartment. (The set, incidentally, by Riccardo Hernández, reflects both the intimate, mundane confines of a New York apartment and the sometimes chilly anonymity of bland, soulless city apartment blocks seen from outdoors.)
“Frankie and Johnny,” true to its conflicted, complicated spirit — both earthy and at times even vulgar, but infused at its rich core with a poetic spirit of unearthly yearning and belief — ends on a note that beautifully blends the two moods. As they sit listening to that encore of the Debussy, Frankie and Johnny are also brushing their teeth. As performed in this deeply affecting revival, it’s hard to say which act, the rapt listening or the dogged brushing, touches more profoundly on the essence of their romance.
“Frankie and Johnny” opened on Thurs. May 30, 2019 at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Creative: Written by Terrence McNally; Directed by Arin Arbus; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg.
Producers: Hunter Arnold, Debbie Bisno, Tom Kirdahy, 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.
Cast: Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon.