Dating in the 1980s must have been a nightmare if plays like Lanford Wilson’s Burn This and Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune are anything to go by.
Were the male trains in Starlight Express also the worst? Did the female trains have to fall in love with the bottom of the train barrel lest living a single life: a fate worse than death? Same for Cats?
In McNally’s play, Frankie (Audra McDonald) and Johnny (Michael Shannon) work in the same restaurant. They’ve fallen into bed but know little about each other. The play is meant to reveal themselves to us and each other, demonstrating how intimacy works by starting with a naked romp and leading to naked emotions. They are deeply lonely people flung into the turbulent waters of life and maybe they are a life raft for each other.
Or so McNally wants us to believe. I’ve never met these “working-class” people in my life. They are caricatures of under-educated people whose lives have gotten away from them. Worse, McNally seems to think, if you’re over forty, this is your absolute last chance at love so you should settle for this terrible person you spotted across the grill at your job. Otherwise it’s lonely meatloaf sandwiches for one FOREVER for you. It’s a strangely desperate gloss that this production never successfully addresses.
I realize the context of the original work which is lightly hinted at in the play was the AIDS epidemic. But using a straight couple as a proxy for what gay men might have been feeling about needing to cling to each other for some ballast or solace in a time of utter agony looks strained now.
The casting here is also a problem. McDonald may be dressed as dowdy as possible and yet still you feel like this beautiful woman could throw a stick and do better than THIS GUY. Burn This at least has a male character who is written to be layered and, in Adam Driver’s hands, nuanced. But Michael Shannon’s dull one-note Johnny is tedious in the extreme. He’s the epitome of the worst of male behavior—he talks over Frankie, he invades her privacy, he pressures her, and he believes that he knows what serves her best (hint: it’s him). And in all this we’re supposed to root for her to give in to him. Not love him. But let down her erected walls because he asked. Not even asked nicely. Just asked.
While McNally thinks he’s written a comedy and the audience finds it amusing, their laughter unsettles me. The thrust of the entire evening is Frankie getting creeped out by Johnny’s behavior and asking him repeatedly to leave. What is funny about this?
I’m not (just) projecting my own anxiety onto the play. McNally writes Frankie as a domestic abuse survivor. She watches one of her neighbors experience intimate partner violence and even tries to intervene with that injured woman. So he’s intentionally created this framing but he uses it as the dramatic “excuse” for Frankie’s resistance. Something to be again overcome by Johnny. He’s not actually interested in her pain, what anguish this brings up, or how any of Johnny’s behavior may be legitimate concerns.
Any light comedy you try to stage around this is wholly undermined by Frankie’s real terror. Then you put gasoline on the fire by casting Michael Shannon in the role. He’s not charming or goofy. He’s menacing. Asking her to take off her robe so he can look at her body sends shivers through mine. It’s like Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins not Mads Mikkelsen) without the cannibalism. Johnny’s vulnerabilities are lost somewhere in Shannon’s monotone.
With Driver, his character in Burn This is a persistent pest, but there’s a symphony of emotions in his sorrow, grief, anger, violence, and softness. His performance is so tantalizing to watch you might not mind spending the evening watching him pace, panic, and explode as he does more harm to himself than anyone. I never feared for the object of his attention, Anna. For Frankie, I worried for every minute of this play. While the play is centered on the abject loneliness of these two souls, bringing them together offers no solace if you’re paying attention.
Director Arin Arbus (making her Broadway debut) leaves us frustrated in other ways. If one could heave themselves over the hurdle of these character issues (I could not), then there was the wall.
The set is a grubby interior studio apartment with the exterior brick as it’s primary visible wall. It gives a sense of tenement closeness and perhaps a lightless air-shaft view of New York City that might be all Frankie can afford. But then after being trapped within this bad date that will never end, the wall moves for no fucking reason at the end of the play.
I mean the shift is probably due to love. <eye roll> But the structural fracture visually evokes nothing. In the moment of the wall’s pointless movement, the lighting changes to the warm glow of sunrise suggesting the world around Frankie has softened and opened. Perhaps she has as well.
Alas, my heart remained hard.