We meet the title characters of “Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune” mid-orgasm, rutting in the near-darkness of a dingy walk-up apartment in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. And while Audra McDonald’s Frankie and Michael Shannon’s Johnny appear to be stark naked for that opening scene, it’s only later, when they are both fully clothed, that they truly seem exposed.
That’s the beauty of Terrence McNally’s incisive 1987 drama, which gets a crackling revival at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre. Back then, McNally used the hetero one-night stand of two co-workers at a greasy spoon to explore both the possibilities and the dangers of intimacy during the height of the AIDS epidemic. (The play makes a few veiled references to the disease.)
But director Arin Arbus, working with intimacy and fight director Claire Warden, thoughtfully reconsiders what this seemingly mismatched, middle-aged 1980s couple has to teach us in the #MeToo era.
Because after that first athletic bout of sex, waitress Frankie would really just like short-order cook Johnny to go home so she can enjoy some ice cream and watch TV. And Johnny doesn’t seem to take no for an answer — prolonging his postcoital visit with a request for a sandwich and a chatterboxy monologue that barges right into a far-too-premature declaration of love.
And Shannon, a veteran villain on the big screen, can’t help but inject a degree of menace to the role — making Frankie’s caution not only justifiable but perhaps the only sensible reaction. Who is this creep and why won’t he just go home?
Slowly but surely, in fits and starts, these two lonely souls dance at connection, and at building a relationship that might last past dawn. McDonald proves again why she is perhaps her generation’s finest actress — at first so open that she falls off the bed bare naked in a fit of natural, uncontainable laughter, and later more guarded as she comes to terms with the man she willingly brought home and whose continued attentions she can’t quite believe.
Can she trust him? Is it too late for love? Could this be her last, best shot at a long-term romance? All of these ideas register in McDonald’s performance without any fussy business, and Shannon complements her by pivoting just as skillfully between creepy and quirky. “You don’t look,” she tells him at one point. “You stare.”
Speaking of fussy business, it’s a shame that Arbus too often maneuvers her two-person cast awkwardly about Riccardo Hernández’s deliberately cramped set — and a second-act kitchen confrontation beggars plausibility. (Also, no cook renowned for his Western omelet would keep wandering away from the pan.)
McNally’s hopeful and heartfelt dramedy still carries a message for audiences who have grown perhaps even more jaded about love than those of three decades ago. Sex is easy, and intimacy is hard. And cynicism, while always just within reach, doesn’t hold a candle to the untrustworthy but undeniable power of sincerity.