When Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon took their bows on press night for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the audience gave a standing ovation and cheered. They roared, however, when playwright Terrence McNally walked onstage to take a bow, 32 years after his play initially debuted Off-Broadway.
Mounted at the Broadhurst Theatre and directed by Arin Arbus, Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune tells the story of two people who find themselves struggling to identify their unfolding relationship after a one-night stand.
While the characters’ chemistry is built off years of flirtatious looks and banal conversation (they work in the same restaurant), McDonald and Shannon only had three weeks to get ready.
“I know it sounds funny, but you can’t rush things, even if you have a short amount of times and Arin was very patient,” said Shannon on building the chemistry. “She never made us feel like we were running out of time. She was willing to spend a lot of time on minute details of technical things.”
Arbus makes her Broadway debut with the two-hander. “It’s interesting, it feels totally like a foreign world to me,” the director explained on the difference between working on the Great White Way and her Obie Award–winning career Off-Broadway. “You don’t have to deal with [press] rooms like this Off-Broadway,” she added, laughing.
In the play, Shannon’s character, Johnny, decides he’s fallen in love with Frankie, played by McDonald, after some passionate onstage love-making. Frankie is less than convinced, though, and despite asking him to leave multiple times, Johnny refuses to leave.
“You look at these things and examine them, but I think you still need to lean into what the story is doing. These things actually exist and these situations actually exist,” explained McDonald regarding the play in the #MeToo era. “So, what you see is two people negotiating. And if you look even more closely at the script, you see that except for the fact that he’s not leaving, he is asking for her consent for everything that he’s doing, and he keeps trying to get it different ways, but he never forces her in any way.”
As for McNally himself, he hasn’t changed a single line since the show debuted over 30 years ago, but his feelings have.
“I like my play more than I remember liking it,” the four-time Tony winner said. “I think loneliness, the need to connect, it’s a play [in which] people really talk to one another for two and a half hours.... they feel it through. It’s a very physical play.”