Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune opens with the title characters – played by Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon – engaged in the kind of sex that only seems possible between strangers. We get a sense of abandon, awe and the thrill of the unknown before any words are spoken. It’s only when the lights come up and their clothes are back on that the lovers begin revealing themselves.
Terrence McNally’s 1987 two-hander is a chamber duet, though in director Arin Arbus’ revival this intimate study has been enlarged to accommodate its bankable stars.
Girl meets boy at work – a short-order diner – agrees to go on a date and they go back to her place. Then boy, well, he goes through her things, refuses to leave, and eventually convinces her they’re meant to be. Over the course of the night we’re presented with variations on a single conversation — is he unhinged? Can they trust each other? Gradually, emotional intimacy catches up with the physical connection.
While the central romance proves primal, it’s still essentially of its time. Though Arbus finesses some of the play’s more cringeworthy turns, 30 years of evolution in gender politics haven’t exactly been kind to it. In a post-Sex and the City Manhattan, McNally’s one-window-among-many exploration of urban coupling – made literal in Riccardo Hernández’s set – feels less groundbreaking than it once did.
But there’s still ample material here for McDonald and Shannon. Both performers forge flesh-and-blood, convincingly ordinary characters, capturing their weary, troubled psyches and their glimmer of hope at meeting a kindred spirit.
Together they turn their unlikely chemistry into something electric, and in doing so reanimate material that may otherwise have felt near its expiration date.