A lot has changed in the 32 years since Terrence McNally wrote "Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune." It’s a rich character study of two lonely souls yearning for connection during a time when the scourge of AIDS made relationships that much harder to bind. And while it’s beautifully acted by Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, the dynamic between them seems dated. What made sense in 1987 now feels jarringly off-kilter.
Frankie is a waitress in a restaurant where Johnny is a short order cook. The play opens as the two, just back from their first date, are having sex. So far so good but as the couple gets to know each other, it seems they’re a mismatch. He’s obsessive - the embodiment of someone who learns a little and wants to talk a lot. She’s guarded and no-nonsense. And so when she gets creeped out by him and asks him to leave, we’re on her side. But this is a romantic dramedy after all, and of course he doesn’t leave and she has a change of heart.
While it’s hard to buy their relationship, McNally’s gift for incisive dialogue makes Frankie and Johnny compelling as a pair of sadly conflicted survivors. To Michael Shannon’s credit, we’re never entirely turned off to Johnny’s manic demeanor. Is he a stalker, a pervert or just a social misfit? McDonald is thoroughly winning as Frankie, a woman with a traumatic past who doesn’t suffer fools. And that’s why we root for her to put an end to this one night stand.
A stronger directorial hand might have glossed over the play's less plausible parts, but there's no excuse for the production's clunky symbolism at play's end. Frankie and Johnny may be catnip for actors, but I question the decision to revive this play. It’s an over-written one act stretched into two that doesn’t translate well in this #Me-Too era. Perhaps it’s unfair to apply present day cultural standards to a story set in 1987 but we’ve come a very long way from the time when women needed men so badly they had to put up with so much weirdness.