In 1987 I saw a play at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City that stayed with me for over 30 years. It affected me so deeply that when it returned to Broadway this year, I felt compelled to see it again. It was called Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was written by Terrance McNally and in 1987 it starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham.
The current production on Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon and it lived up to my glorified memories. It’s an artfully written character piece involving a waitress, Frankie, on a one-night stand/first date with Johnny, the new short-order cook at her low-end restaurant.
Everything about the play is simple and sparse – just two people in Frankie’s small, shabby and depressing apartment in New York City. The costumes are also minimal – a nondescript robe, a plain white shirt.
The play is a study of contrasts. The characters begin the play physically exposed but emotionally unconnected and end the play clothed but emotionally exposed and beginning to connect. The actors are magnificent in their portrayal of these lonely people and their gradual movement toward each other.
Frankie starts out closed off and defensive, pathologically afraid of commitment and forcefully pushing Johnny away. Yet McDonald manages to make you understand her and even like her, despite the walls she puts up to protect herself. Johnny is a bull in a china shop, openly expressing his need for closeness, crashing into her emotional barriers in his clumsy but persistent and sincere attempts to break them down.
He wears his neediness on his sleeve and she is all resistance and rejection. He desperately and poignantly wants to connect with her and she is terrified, fighting tooth and nail against opening up to him.
The piece is beautifully constructed as a will she or won’t she mystery – will she eventually let him in? The first act ends with the audience wondering, along with Frankie, whether or not Johnny is a deranged stalker. By the end of the play, Johnny’s acknowledgment of loneliness and his desire not to be, seem more ‘normal’ than Frankie’s insistence that she’s not lonely and doesn’t need people in her life.
The emotional dance is accompanied by a well-timed, musical dance of words, often laugh out loud funny. At one point, my husband whispered to me that he didn’t realize that this was a comedy. McNally writes so skillfully that even while the audience is laughing, it is also emotionally engaged. It’s one of the few plays I’ve seen that I also want to read so I can savor the language and the verbal sparring.
Everything about this production meshed beautifully. It was one of the most all-around enjoyable and gratifying experiences I’ve had in the theater in a long time.