Terrence McNally is an acknowledged master whose home must house dozens of awards including several for a lifetime of achievement, four Tonys, an Emmy, and many more.
In 1996 he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, and his work includes the books for several successful musicals and the libretti for two operas. Though in his 1964 Broadway debut as playwright (“Things That Go Bump in the Night”) he failed to attract an audience or the press, he went back to work immediately; and it’s been remarkably smooth sailing for the next 55 years.
“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” has enjoyed three productions in New York (off Broadway in 1987, on Broadway in 2002) and now here it is again. In each case its cast of two (the title characters) has won acclaim; and none more so than the current Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon who join Kathy Bates and Ken Welsh and Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in bringing vivid life to two beautifully drawn characters.
It all happens in one mysterious magical night that transpires in a third rate apartment in lower Manhattan which is home to Frankie, a middle aged waitress. She has invited Johnny, the cook in the dingy restaurant in which she earns a modest living, for a late night drink. At curtain’s rise, they are busily, passionately, exquisitely involved in climaxing a most successful sexual encounter that leaves them both surprised, relaxed, and very talkative until dawn.
As played now by McDonald and Shannon, it’s remarkable how each of these gifted players manages to find an entire spectrum of colors to bring to their characters who would seem at first glance to be ordinary folks. Because McNally has written delicious detail into both of them, their very specificity makes them universally understandable and appealing. The resolution of this one-night stand is surprising but most satisfying; and the final moments of the play as staged by Arin Arbus are hauntingly beautiful — all the more so because because they are so simple.
Audra McDonald continues to surprise —even to amaze us — with the seeming ease with which she has delivered the great variety of human beings who have earned her six Tony Awards.
It’s truly remarkable that a singer with such a glorious voice can move into the straight play arena along with the very best of her colleagues who would be lost in a musical. You won’t find another who can shine in material as diversified as “Porgy and Bess,” “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” “A Raisin In The Sun,” “Carousel,” and “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grille.” And those are only samplings of the plays and musicals that she has graced.
I didn’t know Michael Shannon’s work at all, for much of it has been in television, off Broadway, and in the regional theaters. He’s found a legion of fans during his varied and productive early years; but his life on stage is now assured for he’s managed to include delusion, egomania, aggression, control, vulnerability, tenderness and soul into Johnny. Though at times we are tempted to shout “Stop!” it’s only because we like him, and we want to help him find another path to fulfillment. Mr. McNally is ahead of us though, and he takes good care of Johnny in the writing. Shannon runs with it and delivers.
Arin Arbus, the director, has considerable credits on the fringes of commercial theater, but here she makes use of her considerable gifts by shaping the work of her two extraordinary stars into one whole piece of performance art that will linger long in the minds of those of us who had the opportunity to watch it at work. For an important room in your house of memories, I hope you will see it before Aug. 25 which will be the end of this highly successful limited run.
The Broadhurst Theatre, W44th St.
Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Closes Aug. 25.