The two actors enter, look at each other, and then they’re off. The clothes, I mean. Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald open their play with a pretty graphic sex scene, each of them cloaked in shadows but nothing else. Live on stage, this gambit is certainly an excellent way to get the audience’s attention.
Naked people are vulnerable people, disarmed people, which is the point established by the director Arin Arbus at the start of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a sweet and lovely two-hander written in 1987 that has proven surprisingly durable. Terrence McNally’s play about middle-aged lovers just getting to know each other after a first date originally starred F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates, then was adapted into a 1991 film with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. The 1980s references remain intact: A mention of Prizzi’s Honor was the first time I’d heard that 1985 film mentioned in many years. The single setting is an unkempt apartment in Manhattan’s sketchy West 50s, which was then beginning to be dubbed “Clinton” by real-estate marketers but today, now that it’s no longer dangerous, has reverted to its more colorful historical name, Hell’s Kitchen.
Being laid bare perfectly suits Johnny (Shannon), a short-order cook who works in a diner where he worked up the nerve to ask out a waitress, Frankie (McDonald). The two barely know each other; he has to tell her never to call him John, which to him sounds like an occupation or a toilet. Both are in their forties and both lie about their age. Where to go from here, after a single date that resulted in a sexual encounter both enjoyed immensely? Frankie expects Johnny to have a bite to eat and then go home. Johnny has other ideas. He isn’t going anywhere. Maybe not ever.
In 1987 this setup would have seemed considerably more whimsical and humorous than it does today; producing Frankie and Johnny in 2019 seems like a sharp slap to the face of #MeToo. Frankie really would like Johnny to go so she can think about things. Johnny really isn’t leaving. He points out that if she shouts help, it’ll just be so much background noise in the Manhattan cacophony. If she calls the police, they’ll file that under their lowest priority and show up tomorrow, if ever. Given a slight tweak, the play could be approached as a sinister tale of obnoxious men seizing advantage of their privilege, but it’s to the director’s credit that she will have none of this. She finds Johnny’s openness attractive, if a little goofy, and Frankie will just have to yield to his determination.
That element is part and parcel of the throwback spirit of the play, winningly performed by its two stars, especially the superb Shannon. Though that opening five minutes anchors the piece in the post-sexual-revolution era, when no-strings-attached sex between relative strangers is normal, Johnny yearns to think of it as something almost sanctified. This seems odd to Frankie because it is out of step with the times; even after sex, the accepted standard is that two people will go their separate ways and play it cool, maybe wait a few days before re-establishing contact. What is not normal — what may even come across as slightly threatening — is an earnest expression of a desire to stay together forever. Johnny stands unprotected by any carapace of mistrust or cynicism. He’s ready to commit right now. Who speaks like this anymore, in 1987? He seems like a man out of the 1940s. That the two of them have names suggesting a couple in an old folk song strikes him as a hint from fate that they should be together, just as the moonlight streaking over the fire escape bathes them with its approval. In one of his many crazily impulsive moments, Johnny calls up a classical radio station to ask its late-night deejay to “play the most beautiful music ever written and dedicate it to us.” This is Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It may be impossible to listen to without feeling romantic, but Frankie still has secrets, reasons to be in doubt about Johnny’s intentions.
By implication, McNally questions the outcome of the sexual revolution, which is more apparent now than it was in the 1980s: People get overwhelmed, maybe even depressed, by the abundance of romantic options. Both Frankie and Johnny have been around the block a few times, yet have proven unable really to flourish because they haven’t been able to settle into a contented pattern. The fear of commitment is primarily associated with men, but after half a century of libertinism as an accepted standard, women have become suspicious of commitment as well. The proportion of restless, single, unhappy people continues to rise. People shy away from a deep personal connection at the same time they reduce sex to merely a pleasant (if they’re lucky) leisure activity. Johnny stands athwart this situation, yelling Stop.
McNally’s play is not quite profound but it is consistently funny and surprising — seated in front of me the other night, Stephen Sondheim chuckled merrily throughout. Its chief flaw is that, as the couple quarrel, things drag a bit in its second act. Including a 20-minute intermission, Frankie and Johnny runs two hours and 15 minutes, but it could have been tightened up to run perhaps 100 minutes with no intermission. Nevertheless, like its close cousin Burn This, another Broadway romcom featuring a somewhat reserved woman pursued by an absurdly candid and puppyishly affectionate man and also set in New York City in the 1980s, it makes for a smart, warm-hearted, robustly engaging evening at the theater.