FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

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.

Add for the original production I saw in 1987

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.

Headshots of the two stars today

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.

Scenes from the play

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.

Scene from the play

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.

A scene from the play

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.

14 thoughts on “FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. This sound absolutely beautiful, intelligent, compelling and even contains laughter (which is SO important to me)…. Thank you for this reporting; if I could, I would go right now and buy places.

    May I take this opportunity to high-five you for the new beautiful, no, gorgeous banner of your site?! I only saw it yesterday, then we had a cut of the internet and so I’m late to get back to you. It’s so, so, so joyful and pretty.

    Lots of love, Kiki

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was such a memorable play that I remembered it for 30 years! You’re right – it has the perfect mix of character development and revelation, pathos and humor. I’ve seen several plays by the same author and he mixes those elements seamlessly.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem with the movie is that the characters are supposed to be frumpy, not terribly attractive losers in a hash joint who have been dealt a lot of blows in life. They’re down but not quite out. No matter how good Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer are as actors, it was hard to believe that these beautiful people were so down and out and unsuccessful in life. Particularly Michelle – she is still stunningly beautiful without makeup and dressed down. So it was hard to connect emotionally to these characters in the movie. I’ll have to watch it again now and see if my opinion is different.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Before the price of Broadway shows — here AND in New York — got so high, Jeff and i used to go almost every week to see something. in fact, as a kid, my mother used to take me all through the summer to see Broadway shows, the ballet. Matinees were inexpensive and often, we just got there and went to see whatever had “SRO” seats. I saw lots of shows. We used to go here, too and then a few years ago, the prices went nuts. From $30 seats to $300 seats almost overnight. I’m sure there are lots of good shows and I wish they’d reconsider prices. it isn’t even the SHOWS. It’s the ticketing agencies!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I used to go to theater all the time too. But now it’s rare, mostly because of the prices. There is one show I really want to see but the tickets are over $150 a piece! I may go for my birthday in October, but that’s pretty steep.

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        1. $150 is cheap compared to Boston. Maybe it’s because we’re very off-Broadway, but to find a show for under $200 is rare. The prices are ridiculously high and for two people, PLUS parking … You could go away for a week for the money.

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    2. This would be a great play to read – the language and word play is superb. You can’t see it but you could order the book and read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve only seen the movie with Michelle Peiffer and Al Pacino. I ‘discovered’ Clair de Lune through that film and have been listening to the music ever since (you tube does a long play version). Thanks for the synopsis of what must have been really great plays!! Frank & Johnnie is a good story.

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    1. I’m glad so many people saw the movie. I don’t remember how much of the wonderful dialogue was changed for the movie – I’ll have to watch it again to see what I think with my new perspective. It may be a good movie on it’s own, but I remember thinking that it didn’t do the play justice.

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