Sex – passionate, sweaty, explosive, tentative, consuming, terrifying, dangerous, cocoonish, no-wayish, inevitable – has returned to Times Square this spring with the revivals of two landmark plays from 1987, both powered by scorching, no-holds-barred, A-list performances.
At the Hudson, Keri Russell is the beating-wing moth drawn inescapably to Adam Driver’s coke and booze fueled Pale, in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This. Around the corner at the Broadhurst, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon are pas de deuxing in Terrence McNally’s exquisitely tender-creepy mating dance, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, in a revival that perplexes as much as it delights.
The play opens in near darkness, to the contrapuntal music of lovers reaching climax, hers in a birdlike upper register, his along a sonorous bass line. (Just before this, the director, Arin Arbus, adds a kind of amuse-bouche, with the lights coming up briefly on McDonald and Shannon, fully clothed and facing each other, before a blackout allows them to doff the threads and hop into the bed at center stage.)
The setting is Frankie’s pre-gentrification Hell’s Kitchen studio apartment. Tenements loom through the windows, the view fractured by what appear to be freshly painted fire escapes (Riccardo Hernandez’s effectively shabby set is overwhelmed and undercut by the generous proportions of the Broadhurst stage). After a movie date, Frankie (McDonald) has brought home Johnny (Shannon), the new grill man at the greasy spoon where she’s a waitress. Now it’s getting late.
Post-coitus, the realistic, self-effacing Frankie hopes Johnny will leave so she can return to her comfortable routine of packing away ice cream while watching TV. Johnny, however, is smitten, convinced they are meant to be epic lovers predestined by their shared upbringing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and other coincidences of circumstance. Frankie and Johnny are, in theory, no great shakes in the looks department. (One of the funniest early scenes has Frankie giving in to Johnny’s insistence that she flash him, so he can fully take in the sight of what Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon has blessed with more euphemisms than any hymnal of slang.) Since the play requires the two actors to spend much of the evening in the buff, or near buff, and since McDonald and Shannon have bodies most post-30-year-olds would spend hard currency to acquire, the premise doesn’t quite work.
But physical truth isn’t what McNally is after. Written at a time when AIDS cast a growing shadow across the cultural landscape of New York, playwrights including McNally and Wilson were furiously creating visions of hope, of the healing triumph of love, against the appalling reality of loss, of the way grief and fear had come to suffuse the lives of survivors.
Johnny’s insistence on showing Frankie the path to love can today look like the dangerous, threatening creepiness of a psycho just waiting for the trigger that will flip him into a murderous rage. (There’s even a reference by Frankie to Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, that 70s period touchstone of sex=death moralizing.) Sometimes McDonald’s expression cries out for someone in the audience to come save her from this lunatic. And Shannon has a narrow-eyed glare that can send a chill to the folks in the balcony.
But Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune owes as much to the 50s kitchen-sink realism of Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty as it does to the emerging eulogistic plays of the AIDS era. The casting of this play tells an almost hilarious tale: The first production, on Manhattan Theatre Club’s tiny second stage when it was still an Upper East Side boutique company, starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham. When it moved to the mainstage, Abraham had been replaced by the very good-looking Kenneth Welsh. And Garry Marshall’s 1991 film version starred those icons of just-folksiness, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. (Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci starred in Joe Mantello’s superb 2002 Broadway revival.)
Arbus and her team work a bit too hard at making the dese-dem-dose point. Few actors command the level of regard earned by McDonald (who has a record-making six Tony awards, including one for her performance as a student singer in McNally’s Master Class) and Shannon. The effort shows. Across two and a quarter hours, I never for a moment forgot that I was watching "acting." Terrific acting, to be sure, but never the kind that disappears into character and takes us out of ourselves, of the theater, of the time.
Even the end, which manages to close this fusion bomb of a play with the simple act of two people brushing their teeth, together and apart, plays as too practiced – and as not a little condescending. Like the ratty apartment in that all-too-spacious set, something about the event rings false.