David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics CIrcle/Drama Desk Member
“Pretend that we’re the only two people in the entire world, that’s what I’m doing, and it all falls into place.” – Johnny to Frankie
Moonlight – the kind of light that shines into Frankie’s (Audra McDonald) apartment window at night – provides the best light for pretending. The kind of pretending that has the chance of making an incursion into the blinding light of reality. Moonlight is more forgiving than sunlight which prefers clarity over moonlight’s ambiguity and judgement over moonlight’s forgiveness. Frankie hosts her coworker Johnny (Michael Shannon) at the apartment for their first date and their first sexual encounter.
Waitress and short order cook respectively, Frankie and Johnny bask in the nude in the moonlight after Johnny’s rather aggressive and noisy lovemaking and what was meant to be a one-night stand becomes a tour-de-force of relationship building. Despite protestations from both – mostly from Frankie – the newly launched “couple” begins to experiment with non-sexual intimacy, neediness, unconditional love, and the basic rhythms of life not usually experienced by coworkers. The moonlight (‘Clair de lune’) magically provides the kind of space and time for the pair to expose brokenness, insecurity, weakness, and a score of self-loathing epithets.
The space is the apartment that appears to be under scrutiny from the low-hanging light grid whose instruments – like glowing eyes – peer deeply into the inhabitants as they crisscross the cluttered place that has protected Frankie from too much exposure and allowed her to understand relationships by looking into two apartments “across the courtyard.” For eight years, ever since she moved in, Frankie watches “an old couple in bathrobes eat in total silence” and a second couple involved in a mutually satisfying masochistic relationship. She wants neither scenario but is too afraid to open herself up to the possibility for a healthier relationship.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set and Natasha Katz’s lighting) create a surreal environment that, like a third and fourth character, broods over Frankie and Johnny’s quest for authenticity and honesty as their relationship is created with rapid fire dialogue and staccato movement.
Under Arin Arbus’s exquisite direction (Broadway debut), Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon play to perfection the EveryMan, EveryWoman, EveryOne seeking to overcome their finitude and fallibility to connect with another person in a meaningful way and establish a non-judgmental relationship against all odds. These two actors are stunning together and support one another as they lay bare the layers of their characters and expose their deep and enduring conflicts. They could not be more comfortable in their skin and in their willingness to be completely transparent. There are no stereotypes here, just an abundance of normalcy that transcends the characters’ occupations or neighborhoods.
This is the best of the Broadway productions of “Frankie and Johnny” and Terrence McNally’s play is more relevant today that perhaps it ever was. At some point, Frankie and Johnny will need to go back to work. Will their emerging love and respect for one another survive in the light of day? Or will it be like the lives of occupants of the two apartments Frankie is able to see from her window. Will any of us survive in the glaring light of judgement and criticism? For Terrence McNally intends his tender play to be for all who are struggling for meaning in relationship and in self. The radio announcer Johnny calls to play a song for Frankie shares at the play’s end, “I’m still thinking about Frankie and Johnny. God, how I wish you two really existed. Maybe I’m crazy but I’d still like to believe in love.” Only time will tell whether Frankie and Johnny or any of us sharing the planet will find love.
FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIRE DE LUNE
The cast of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” features Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
The creative team of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” includes Riccardo Hernandez (Sets), Emily Rebholz (Costumes), Natasha Katz (Lighting), Nevin Steinberg (Sound), J. Jared Janas (Hair, Wig and Makeup), Claire Warden (Intimacy and Fight Director), Laurie Goldfeder (Production Stage Manager) and 101 Productions, Ltd. (General Manager).
“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” runs at the Broadhurst Theatre (235 West 44th Street) through Sunday, August 25, 2019. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit FrankieAndJohnnyBroadway.com. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Photo: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune.” Credit: Deen van Meer.