‘Frankie and Johnny’ Beams a Strong Broadway Half-Light

Playwright Terrence McNally can be greatly thanked -- especially in the light of the moon.

Michael Shannon, Audra McDonald in ‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.’ Photo: Seen van Meer.

In 1987, the playwright Terrence McNally wrote a well-nigh-perfect one-act under the title Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Frankie’s a waitress and Johnny’s a chef at the same beanery; after a night together, he attempts to convince her they belong together for more than their one-off roll in the hay.

During the opening moments of the current Broadway revival of the play, starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, that one-off hay-roll instantly ranks as one of the most graphic displays of on-stage sexual intercourse ever to wow Broadway. From a theatrical and dramatic point of view, this is an achievement when sexuality on the stage sometimes feels like just another ho-hum matter.

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That is to say: kudos to McDonald and Shannon for their full out, full-frontal participation — and for much more as the first act progresses. As the play builds to several more climaxes following the initial physical one, Johnny is more and more convinced that he has finally found the woman of his dreams. Frankie, on the other hand, grows increasingly certain that although she and Johnny have eyed other for some time, she made a mistake in going as far as she did with a man who doesn’t know when to leave.

Yet, during their first few minutes of post-coital banter in Frankie’s one-room Hell’s Kitchen apartment (Riccardo Hernández designed the shabby space), Frankie and Johnny are also funny with each other. The humor palls when Frankie can’t understand just what’s driving Johnny, who reiterates, through many shifting moods, that she simply doesn’t understand that they’re fated to be mated. It’s a relief for her (and the audience) when putting on a piece of clothing suggests (prematurely) that he does intend to shove off.

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McNally’s success with this thrumming, throbbing act comes from creating two protagonists who are utterly believable — in an utterly believable environment. Moreover, they’re utterly needy — and both are sympathetic. It’s a marvel of a play: Johnny’s passionate, unsettling insistence that Frankie succumb to his imprecations; Frankie’s reasonable recoiling.

Frankie’s radio then floats Glenn Gould playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” with other music heard here and there. (Nevin Steinberg is the sound designer.) Since neither Frankie nor Johnny recognize the Bach (she amusingly calls it “chaste”) he calls the station and asks the deejay — a certain Marlon of “Midnight with Marlon” — about the piece. And also, a fervent request: Can he play the most beautiful love music he knows?

Marlon, who otherwise never plays requests, airs — you guessed it — Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” thus giving McNally his clever titular pun. Looking out the window by Frankie’s fire escape, Johnny sees the moon shining its melancholy beams between two neighboring buildings. Won over at last by Johnny’s ceaseless importuning, Frankie embrace Johnny on the fire escape in the light of the — well, you know.

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In her first Broadway assignment, director Arin Arbus easily maximizes McNally’s script and unleashes full-throttle work from her clearly able, willing actors. Six-time Tony-winner McDonald, who does everything surpassingly well, once more slips seamlessly into her character, becoming the disappointed, defeated, yet determined hash-slinger that Frankie is. Only naked for the beginning minutes of the play, she moves easily around her place in a robe and, for a brief time, in clothes — in case she decides to flee her place when Johnny truly won’t: a woman surrendered to a life of limited prospects. (Emily Rebholz’s costumes also fill an open closet and hang on a bathroom door.)

Shannon, in fighting shape, always looks a man to be reckoned with. Here, he suggests a stick of unlit dynamite, modulated by a deep, vulnerable core. The result is a figure who may explode — or implode. Either way, a formidable package.

And there you have this exhilarating, exhausting one-act by McNally, now a few months shy of 80 years old, and who will receive a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement on June 9.

But the play doesn’t end there. Indeed, it’s as if someone told McNally that his first act is so nice, he really ought to do it twice. Or he was advised that his one-act would have a much better chance of being produced if it were a full-length play.

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So what does McNally do? He composes a second act that is a virtual repeat of the first, only rendered different in its particulars by insufficient spins. This time around — as Johnny relentlessly pursues Frankie and she, again, pleads and plots his departure — the most involving minutes have to do with Johnny preparing an omelet that Frankie says she craves. Watching Shannon slice and dice peppers and onions for a delicacy that never eventuates at least provides something freshly theatrical. Has Shannon always been a cook, an observer wonders? Or has he spent the last few months practicing at home for this persuasive bit of stage business?

Act-ending, in other words, is sometimes a McNally problem — though not so much for his musical books, such as for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime, where the plots are handed to him, but for his plays. The Lisbon Traviata, for example, has the same second-act development hitch as with Frankie and Johnny: Act I is complete in its accomplishment; Act II is gratuitous. In Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Act I is complete in its accomplishment; Act II is at loose ends by the final blackout.

And yet, for the five-plus decades that McNally has been writing, he has been sgenerous with his talents — and for Frankie and Johnny especially so, at least in Act I. As he delves, along with McDonald, Shannon and Arbus — into the daunting ups and downs of incipient love, he can be greatly thanked, especially in the light of the moon.