‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune’ review: Stellar cast lifts flimsy production

Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon star in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon star in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" at the Broadhurst Theatre. Photo Credit: Getty Images for Pandora Media/Nicholas Hunt

‘Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune’ runs through Aug. 25 at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., frankieandjohnnybroadway.com

Terrence McNally’s crowd-pleasing two-hander “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is receiving a starry revival with six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon.

As one would expect given their impressive bodies of work, McDonald and Shannon deliver superb performances that combine hyper comedy with underlying vulnerability. However, the revival is misconceived physically, with a lighting grid stationed far too low below the actors and a flimsy exterior backdrop, which affects the extent to which the audience is drawn into the play.

A bittersweet romance with a hopeful ending, "Frankie and Johnny" observes the anxious interactions between Frankie (a waitress) and Johnny (a short-order cook) following a one-night stand.

McDonald’s nervous and jaded Frankie contrasts nicely with Shannon’s kooky and intense Johnny. Considering that both actors have become identified with far more serious roles, this production probably comes as a pleasant relief for them.

That being said, the play itself (which runs roughly  2½ hours and is confined to Frankie’s studio apartment) is very thin. Prior productions of it have made it clear that the confessional and draggy second act could probably be discarded altogether.

“Frankie and Johnny” (which originally starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham) received multiple Off-Broadway engagements in the late 1980s. In 2002, it played Broadway for the first time with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, who were replaced by Rosie Perez and Joe Pantoliano. Garry Marshall also directed a 1991 flop film adaptation, titled simply “Frankie and Johnny,” with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

McNally, a famously prolific playwright (“Love! Valor! Compassion!”, “Master Class,” “It’s Only a Play”) and musical theater book writer (“Ragtime,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Anastasia”), recently turned 80 years old and, not surprisingly, has been honored quite a lot lately.

The timing of this revival is questionable, though, premiering during the lead-in period to the Tony Awards and facing competition from numerous shows that opened before the end of the spring season. Can poor Frankie and Johnny make it?