When Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny In The Clair de Lune premiered Off Broadway in 1987, critics saw a sidelong glance at the AIDS crisis and the toll it took on intimacy. Nothing in the text has been changed for the affecting new production opening tonight on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre starring a powerful, ideally matched duo in Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, and so those references to sexual terror remain.
But there’s a new – or, more accurately, a newly recognized – foreboding in the afterglow of the graphically staged commingling that opens this beloved play about two emotionally wounded sad sacks making some fledgling advancement toward connection. With last Christmas’ “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” controversy still fresh in the mind, how can we not see something sinister in Frankie and Johnny that maybe wasn’t noticed before? Will Johnny, the male half of the energetic hook-up we’ve just witnessed, respect Frankie’s command that, the deed done, he leave her apartment? Because if he did, as he should, there would be no play.
In her Broadway directing debut, Arin Arbus seems fully aware of newfound and hard-won sensitivities, and neither dismisses them nor entirely clarifies the shadow they cast on this pre-Me Too era work. Whether that absence of resolution is an intentional commentary or a dramatic shortfall will likely have as many interpretations as there are audience members.
The plot, familiar through frequent stagings of what’s come to be regarded a modern classic (the most recent on Broadway, 2002’s production starring Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, was good enough to all but wipe out memory of Garry Marshall’s woefully miscast 1991 movie let-down starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer), remains unchanged since the Plague Years: Two diner co-workers, all-but-strangers, middle-aged, not exactly down and out but not far from it – short-order cook Johnny (Shannon) and waitress Frankie (McDonald) – are in the process of completing their first date.
Better put, they’re in the throes of completing, or so at least one of them thinks, their first date. The infamous, raucously noisy sex scene, full nudity now as then, remains a marvel of theatrical false starts. Oh, the act itself is finished just fine for all concerned, but the implication that we, as audience voyeurs, are witnessing some sort of ultimate intimacy is laid to rest soon enough. The real intimacy is just beginning.
The sheets have barely cooled before Frankie’s desire to return to what’s probably her usual Saturday night routine – snacks and TV – becomes painfully clear. Johnny has other ideas, as he a wheedles, cajoles, and talks and talks and talks, all in a desperate, last-ditch effort to postpone the subway ride back to his miserable life. Even their names, immortalized in musical folklore, suggest, to him anyway, that these two are meant for each other.
And the two do indeed begin to uncover the sorts of commonalities and coincidences that most new lovers take at least a few dates to discover. Same hometown. Same school. Same childhood disappointments, same adult disillusions.
Perhaps most of all, they share the type of romantic past that would leave anyone ready for a life of Saturday TV and ice cream. To reveal more would be unfair, but once bitten twice shy applies, and then some.
The two-act, post-coital fencing match, with its scattered triumphs and set-backs, remains as poignant as ever, moving, sad, funny and, at a moment or two, the very definition of romantic, not least when Debussy arrives on the radio and give the play its title.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” of course, plays only in our heads, or mine anyway. And with lesser talent than Arbus, McDonald and Shannon, Frankie and Johnny could become drowned out by that song that’s not even mentioned. It’s not a stretch to imagine McNally’s play relegated to some heap of outdated artifacts, a depiction of romance from well before anyone had ever heard of Aziz Ansari.
That it survives instead as a testament to human connection speaks well of both the play and this production. Played out on Riccardo Hernandez’s detail- perfect tenement walk-up apartment – a TV small and chunky enough to sit just so on a single lap, boom-box radio, that ’50s-era kitchen crammed in an ’80s era corner – Frankie and Johnny gives its couple enough room to maneuver while still feeling as compact and temporary as a waiting room. The brick wall of the building next door serves as the stage’s backdrop, all but sealing in our couple Cask of Amontillado-style.
There’s a moment late in this staging when that wall moves, giving some breathing room to these tentative, possible lovers, a sweet notion if a bit clunky in execution. Truth is, we don’t need a movable wall to tell us that these two characters, so carefully embodied by two fine actors, have at least some small claim on hope, or at least the room to imagine it. That they’ve survived their fears, our worries and the demands of two very different eras is as miraculous today as it was in 1987.