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Obie-winning director Arin Arbus, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, and two-time Oscar and Tony nominee Michael Shannon deliver a lovely eightieth birthday present to four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally — and a splendid gift to theatergoers in the process — with a scorching Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, heating up the summer at the Broadhurst through July 28. Originally presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987 featuring Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham as the title characters, then debuting on Broadway in 2002 with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci (replaced by Rosie Perez and Joey Pantaliano) — it was also made into a 1991 movie by Garry Marshall with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino — the play is clearly all about the actors; its one and only subject is about making connections in a world that can be cold and lonely. Arbus’s version remains true to the original, set in the 1980s in a New York City walkup in the West Fifties during the AIDS crisis. There are no cell phones and no internet, no 24/7 news cycle, no Facebook, no Spotify playlists, just two people involved in a one-night stand, then grappling with the question of whether it may be more.
The show takes place in a well-rendered studio apartment designed by Riccardo Hernández, with the bed at the center of the stage. Frankie (McDonald), a waitress at a local diner, and Johnny (Shannon), a short order cook there, are in the midst of raw, passionate sex while Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays on the radio. “God, I wish I still smoked. Life used to be so much more fun,” Frankie says after they have finished making love. It’s not exactly what you expect to hear after such a sexual experience, but it instantly establishes Frankie as a nervous, worried, negative woman who thinks the best part of her life is over. The more upbeat and positive Johnny responds with a funny story about flatulence that exposes a wry sense of humor and a clear lack of boundaries. She wants him to leave, but he won’t; he’s determined to convince her that this was no mere onetime tryst. While he heaps praise on her and doesn’t hesitate to open up, she is fearful of revealing too much of herself. He also discovers a series of coincidences that he thinks means they are meant to be together, but she is not buying it.
“I want to ask you to quit sneaking up on me like that,” she says. “We’re talking about one thing, people who teach, and wham! you slip in there with some kind of intimate, personal remark. I like being told I’m fabulous. Who wouldn’t? I’d like some warning first, that’s all. This is not a spontaneous person you have before you.” He replies, “You’re telling me that [the sex] wasn’t spontaneous?” She responds, “That was different. I’m talking about the larger framework of things. What people are doing in your life. What they’re doing in your bed is easy or at least it used to be back before we had to start checking each other out. I don’t know about you but I get so sick and tired of living this way, that we’re gonna die from one another, that every so often I just want to act like Saturday night really is a Saturday night, the way they used to be.”
His insistence on sticking around and getting extremely personal is more creepy in this #MeToo era, but his stalkerish behavior wasn’t exactly exemplary in 1987 either. After all, McNally does name the characters after an old song that first declares, “Frankie and Johnny were lovers,” then has her pulling out a gun after he “done her wrong,” so her trust issues are understandable. Before this night, Frankie and Johnny had communicated at the restaurant only as fellow employees, with her calling out orders (probably in abbreviated diner-speak) and him making the food. Now they’re potentially laying bare their souls — after laying bare their bodies, as the play famously requires substantial nudity in the first act.
Former TFANA associate artistic director Arbus (The Skin of Our Teeth, The Father) heightens the emotional and psychological cat-and-mouse aspects of the narrative as Frankie and Johnny try to figure out what just happened between them. McDonald (Master Class, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) again proves herself to be one of the finest theater actors of her generation with a brave, sizzling display of rough-hewn vulnerability, while Shannon (Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Killer) portrays Johnny with a jittery, menacing kindness. McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) includes numerous references to music and the moon, classic inspirations for romance — the title of the play itself refers to Claude Debussy’s movement based on Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem, which in part reads, “All sing in a minor key / Of victorious love and the opportune life, / They do not seem to believe in their happiness / And their song mingles with the moonlight.” Many of the scenes are so graphic and exposing that intimacy director Claire Warden was brought in to make the actors more comfortable. Fortunately, that did not remove the general level of discomfit and unease the audience is meant to feel as they watch a man and a woman examine their fate face-to-face, and body to body.