WHAT "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune"
WHEN | WHERE Through Aug. 25, Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.
INFO From $59; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Thirty-plus years later, Terrence McNally's touching romance still works.
In the dim light you can barely make out the figures, but the sounds make it perfectly clear what's going on — a couple in the final moments of earth-moving passion. In the emotional and beautifully performed revival of Terrence McNally’s 1987 "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" at the Broadhurst Theatre, the ecstasy turns out to be fleeting, the couple completely at odds over where this relationship is going.
Frankie (Audra McDonald) is dubious as to whether this first date might warrant a second. Johnny (Michael Shannon) basically proposes marriage. These two lost souls — she a waitress, he a short-order cook — worked together for six weeks before he asked for a date. That they ended up back at her shabby West Side walk-up speaks less to romance than to a search for connection both seemingly gave up on long ago.
The play requires significant willingness to go with the vision of director Arin Arbus, especially when it comes to accepting the striking McDonald as an unattractive high school dropout whose previous abusive relationships left her scarred physically and emotionally. (Note there are brief moments of nudity for both actors.) But the six-time Tony Award winner pulls it off with an intense, finely nuanced performance, her every move calculated to portray her conflicted feelings.
As Johnny, Shannon is better suited physically to the Shakespeare-quoting ex-con, offering up an intriguing mix of bravado and brashness suggesting he believes this might be his last chance at love. "Everything I want is in this room," he tells her, roaming the cramped apartment (realistic set by Riccardo Hernandez) trying to convince her he should spend the night. What changes her mind? Give some credit to the Debussy of the title, played after he makes a request to a late-night radio show for "the most beautiful music in the world."
But the glorious melody hardly seals the deal, and the play, revived in honor of McNally's 80th birthday, may raise some #MeToo hackles when Johnny refuses Frankie's multiple requests to leave. Though the second act takes place only a few hours later, we find these lonely hearts bickering like an old married couple, Frankie seeing potential flaws in any conceivable path to happiness.
By the end, they're more resigned than anything else. We leave them brushing their teeth as the sun comes up, their future by no means certain but safe for the moment. The back wall fades into the distance, suggesting that barriers can come down if you will them to. As Johnny says, "When you see something beautiful, you have to hang on to it."