By Elyse Trevers
For Frankie (Audra McDonald) and Johnny (Michael Shannon), a first date was inevitable. For weeks they had worked together in a restaurant, she as a waitress, he as a short-order cook, and watched one another. Finally, Johnny took Frankie out to a movie, dinner and back to her apartment. In the revival of “Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” a not-so-young, not-so-beautiful couple struggles to make a meaningful connection.
The play is set in 1980s’ Hell’s Kitchen in a cramped walkup tenement studio apartment with a fold-out sofa bed that dominates the room (scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez.) The show opens to the sounds of the couple making love, quite noisily and pleasurably. The light is vague and shadowy; we can make out their naked figures but the scene does not evoke erotic or prurient reactions. We don’t feel like we are intruding (though from some of the laughing early on, some in the audience might have felt a bit uncomfortable). Later on, we all join in as Johnny recalls one of his earliest sexual experiences and starts to laugh. Although she doesn’t even know why, his laughter sets Frankie off, causing her to roll off the bed.
Frankie is okay with the start of their relationship, but Johnny wants much more and isn’t anxious to leave. Many of the next several scenes are spent with her urging him to go while he waxes poetic, using phrases from Shakespeare (he has two years of college) and using big words and flowery language, trying to convince her to let him stay. Frankie has been hurt before, both figuratively and literally, and she’s developed armor to protect herself. All of Johnny’s talk and behavior makes her uncomfortable and she is getting concerned. However, Johnny is convinced that the two have something and they need this night to cement it.
The actors give fine performances. McDonald shows her tough girl attitude and strength. I kept wishing the multi-Tony winner would sing or hum a lot, but, alas, it didn’t happen. Shannon, a Tony-nominated Broadway and film actor is earnest and sincere as Johnnie. If anything, the two actors are a bit too attractive to be the characters they portray.
However, the play drags on and is much too talky, especially as Johnny keeps speaking. Not only is his character garrulous, he is also menacing. Shannon projects a sense of danger as Frankie keeps telling him to leave. There are some uncomfortable moments for Frankie, yet she gives in, almost resignedly. He asks for 15 seconds to stare at her nakedness, but after emphatically refusing, she submits. She turns her back to the audience and opens her robe for him to stare at her. That scene doesn’t ring true for a modern woman. A woman trying to get rid of a man wouldn’t submit unless she felt threatened by him. Realistically she would have been more disturbed by his behavior than wooed by his words.
Today a young woman would pull out her mace and call 911. Yet Frankie just keeps on asking and telling him to leave. Frankie makes a reference to the movie “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” where a young woman is murdered by a man with whom she had a one-night stand. Johnny is too creepy, and although I’d seen the play years before with Bonnie Franklin and Tony Musante, I didn’t recall Johnny being such a menacing figure. Shannon comes across as a bit too sinister.
By the end of the play, the act of two people sitting side by side brushing their teeth while listening to Debussy is more intimate than the loud sex they had at the beginning. Yet, as with other instances in the play, director Arin Arbus lets the scene go on much too long. The play makes some references to 1980s’ movies and actors like James Coburn and dances like the hustle. There’s a fleeting allusion to the AIDS epidemic when Frankie bemoans the fears of casual sex. Movies, dances and fashions may be dated, but the notion of lonely people seeking connection is certainly timeless.