By Karen Isaacs
As I was watching the revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the song “Two Lost Souls on the highway of life” from Damn Yankees popped into my head.
Because this play IS about two lost souls each battered by the world. Frankie is a 40+ waitress in a New York City luncheonette. She’s living in an apartment she can barely afford and dislikes. Her last long term relationship was abusive. She is scarred in so many ways.
Johnny is nearing 50 and also has had his share of hurts, disappointments, failures and more that have beaten him down. He’s a short order cook where Frankie works. But Johnny has an optimistic side.
This play is about the relationship these two people form – or at least the relationship Johnny is convinced they should form.
The play opens with the sounds of passion and no lights; classical music is playing. Frankie and Johnny are in her apartment making passionate love.
Audra McDonald plays Frankie; she is fiercely committed to the role. But even with no makeup, she cannot pass for the worn out Frankie. No matter what, she is gorgeous and her body – we do see her partially nude – looks in perfect condition. There is not a sag or cellulite anywhere. That aside, she
Michael Shannon is equally committed to his character. Again, he doesn’t quite fit my image of Johnny who I picture as overweight; Shannon may not have six pack abs, but he is lean and fit.
I’ve always had reservations about this play and with the #metoo movement, these have escalated. It’s because of the basic premise of the play. Johnny is sure that he and Frankie should be a couple – after all their names reflect the hold song. So he is going to convince Frankie of that fact, no matter how she tries to resist.
In reality he becomes a vaguely menacing figure, refusing to leave her apartment and continuing to insist that they are “meant to be together.”
And of course, by the end, Frankie has given in. For me, it is not just that he has broken through her protective shell, but that he is worn her down, bullied her and proved once more that other people know what is best for you – in this case a man knows what is best for the woman. It is this attitude that makes the play feel dated.
If it sounds like it borders on the creepy – it is.
That isn’t to say director Arin Arbus hasn’t done a fine job creating a reality; she has handled the intimate scenes sensitively (Claire Warden is credited as the intimacy & fight director). The reality, however, falls into the stereotype of the woman saying no until she is convinced to say yes.
The reference to “Clair de Lune” comes to the Debussy piece; Johnny calls the classical music radio station they are listening to and convinces the overnight DJ to play “the most beautiful music ever written”—the DJ plays “Clair de Lune”.
Perhaps adding to my unease is how, near the end of the play, as the DJ’s shift is ending, he again comments on the couple, romanticizing them as two romantics.
The production elements are good: Riccardo Hernandez has created Frankie’s walk up apartment to look just as worn and defeated as she feels; Emily Rebbolz has created the limited costumes need. Both Natasha Katz (lighting) and Nevin Steinbergy (sound) do an excellent job.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is worth seeing for the fine acting.
It is at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 w. 44th Street though Aug. 25. Tickets are available through Telecharge.