By Sandi Durell
It’s the 1980s in Terrence McNally’s superbly written story of two fractured people having loud, spirited sex when we first meet workmates, waitress Frankie (an earthy Audra McDonald) and the short-order cook Johnny (the ever impressive Michael Shannon) in her small dingy Hell’s Kitchen apartment. They’re up close and personal fully nude in director Arin Arbus’ imagining that puts a more current spin on respecting a woman’s right to say hi and goodbye.
They’re both needy but she sublimates her feelings and real desires for long term intimacy, keeping an almost fixed painted smile on her face most of the time, while he’s an open book of emotional drama deciding she’s what he wants and won’t take no for an answer, as Frankie repeatedly voices that she wants him out of her small studio apartment (well designed by Ricardo Hernandez). But, no, Johnny isn’t that easily swayed – he’s on a mission to find happiness and not interested in hearing her scared refusals.
He begins to break her down when he asks her to open her robe so he can take a better look at her private parts to “feast on her loveliness,” as the talk turns to more revealing personal revelations like his jail stint, her abusive former boyfriend, where they grew up, thoughts on kids and finally giving in to tell their real ages. While Johnny likes to read and improve his mind (Shakespeare), she prefers to watch TV and eat ice cream. So it’s many times amusing as they banter and he’ll use his self-taught knowledge to throw around words like metaphor which she doesn’t know.
Shannon proves his muster in the area of comic timing many times over as he spews words of realities and emotions like an over-running fountain sure that Frankie is what he needs and vice-versa. His facial nuances are remarkable to watch.
McDonald is a wonder in this raw performance as we watch her balance this everyday, not very educated cynical working gal, filled with tightly wrapped fierce, needy desires . . . aside from the fact that she is gorgeous to look at. Shannon is stunning in his candor as Frankie continues to call him ‘weird.’
Her interests are more basic as she’s ready to get back into bed again but she’s also hungry so interrupts their love-making, asking her skilled kitchen lover to make her an omelet – much cause for more verbal sparring. But when he calls a radio station to request the DJ (voice of F. Murray Abraham) play the most beautiful music ever written, listening to Debussy’s spectacular piece helps crumble much of Frankie’s armor.
Unfortunately, I did not see the original incarnation in 1987 with Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham but can readily say the pairing of these two remarkable actors must be equal or surpassing, the play humorous, poignant and spell-binding in Natasha Katz’ exquisite lighting .
Photos: Dean van Meer
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune thru August 25 at the Broadhurst Theater, NYC Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes