In Des Moines by award winning writer Denis Johnson nothing vital seems to happen during the time Dan, his wife Marta, their grandson Jimmy, Father Michael and Mrs. Drinkwater get smashing drunk and have a wild party in Dan and Marta’s modest second floor apartment in Des Moines, Iowa. Yet, in the 12 hours they spend together, much does happen. Connections are made, personal revelations are expressed and in each individual’s life, as a result of the dynamic interactions that take place, all experience a shift. For some it’s in perspective. For others the change is behavioral. However, in this deceptively “small” but mighty play, Johnson reveals the importance of listening to others’ faint soul cries and helping them relax into a zaniness that soothes.
At the play’s outset for a moment all is blackness. We hear a deafening roar, a loud cacophony of noise, a piercing, grating, rolling thunderous sound like a ripping away of the earth’s atmosphere as if a bomb had been dropped. We ask what is happening and what does that sound mean?
The lights come up on cab driver, husband Dan who has come home from work. He hits upon what the sound might be as he discusses with wife Marta that Mrs. Drinkwater, the wife of a man who died in a recent plane crash, has sought him out to ask him questions. Dan was one of the last people to speak to Mr. Drinkwater, when he took him to the airport, before he got in the plane that crashed in an embankment, killing everyone onboard. Thus, we put together the roaring sound at the top of the play with the plane engines roaring before the crash.
By the end of the play we are no closer to understanding the symbolism, though it is repeated during a blackout between scenes after a raucous party. Perhaps it symbolizes the “veil being rent,” what must happen in human consciousness to allow enlightenment and an awakening to flood the psyche with new understanding. Though Johnson makes references to being awakened and made aware, these concepts are fleeting, and unexplained.
This is one of the joys of Des Moines in which Johnson seems to suggest that human existence in its greatest depth is about understanding, empathy and the bridge of consciousness between and among people in the realms of their own experience. All of these elements at one point or another Johnson touches upon in each of his characterizations, portrayed by prodigious actors, who are incisively directed by Arin Arbus.
During Dan’s discussion with Marta, we understand that he is startled that Mrs. Drinkwater would seek him out to ask him questions about her dead husband. It is as if she looks for anything to bring her comfort through the trauma she’s experiencing from her partner’s strange death in a shocking, rare accident. During Dan’s discussion, the playwright raises questions about the fragility of life and the permanence of death. The conundrum of dying in life daily, momentarily looms, then vaporizes as Dan jumps to raw reality. He tells Marta how medical examiners attempt to identify the smashed bodies picked up at the crash site. From what he’s learned from Mrs. Drinkwater, the next of kin are asked to think about looking for one identifying feature of their loved one and not look at or imagine the entire body. Immediately, one’s loved one is reduced to one feature to better help the coroners during the cold and alienating identification process. This is another startling crash of death’s finality which shakes Dan.
Arliss Howard who portrays Dan with an organic realism and authenticity relays Dan’s concern about Mrs. Drinkwater. She is Black and Mr. Drinkwater was a prominent Black lawyer. Seeking information, Mrs. Drinkwater has shown up at the car garage daily to joggle Dan’s memory until he finally pictures her husband and remembers snatches of conversation they had in the cab before Dan dropped him off at the airport. Thus, an ancillary, “meaningless” conversation carries with it great moment for Mrs. Drinkwater and for Dan in light of the catastrophe of Mr. Drinkwater’s irrational and sudden death. Indeed, we are reminded if it happened to him, death will happen to us. Momento mori. Mortality is a hard fact Dan nor Mrs. Drinkwater can’t seem to negotiate, nor can Marta as we discover in her interaction with Father Michael when the priest visits.
Johanna Day as Marta is perfect as Dan’s patient, dutiful partner, who listens to Dan’s concern and gets the importance of this last conversation with the husband. Also, it isn’t unusual to her that Mrs. Drinkwater wants to know everything Dan can remember. We learn later that Dan and Marta, too, have suffered a sudden loss of a loved one. Thus, Mrs. Drinkwater’s endless questioning makes weird sense and reveals the pain and hurt she obviously experiences. It is a shared hurt for Dan and Marta, which we note later in Marta’s fleeting few words which vaporize into thin air, not belabored because the pain of loss has settled into the characters’ ethos, becoming a part of their consciousness.
From their interchange in the kitchen, we note that Dan’s and Marta’s is a close relationship. This closeness bears up throughout the play. They appear to be a typical, married, older couple who have lived together for years. However, on closer inspection, there is nothing typical about them. There is a profound comfort to their relationship that reveals a tight bond that connects them beyond understanding. This closeness especially manifests in their drinking, carousing, acceptance and love of their transgender grandson, who lives with them and who is wheelchair bound. They are also bonded together having experienced pain, loss and tragedy.
The character dynamics take off when Father Michael (the superb Michael Shannon) visits. Denis Johnson has set up Father’s Michael character by having Dan discuss with Marta that he saw Father Michael wearing make-up in front of a gay bar. Ironically, Dan mentions that he won’t feel so inferior or insecure at Confession knowing that Father Michael is less than perfect and most probably is gay. His response is all about forgiveness and an absence of judgment. And it is clear that this has now become a two way street of forgiveness and acceptance.
Marta has asked Father Michael to come over to receive comfort and perhaps prayer as she tells Dan that the doctors only gave her two to four months to live because the cancer has spread throughout her body. The only comfort Father Michael gives is his honesty in saying that death is a mystery and one can’t say much about it. However, the most accurate and hopeful comment he tells her is that the doctors don’t know everything. In other words their prognosis may be wrong. Father Michael ends any further discussion of Marta’s cancer and shifts to another topic abruptly which is humorous. Then the action gyrates so that Dan and Marta decide to pick up some beers as if the dire conversation never happened nor should happen. Dan and Marta promise to come back, leaving Father Michael with Jimmy (Hari Nef) in a blonde wig, rhinestone boots, make-up and wheelchair.
Jimmy who has been crippled by a doctor during the sex change operation appears to take this in stride. However, we discover what is motivating Jimmy’s apparent calm later in the play, the hope of walking again. The scene between Nef’s Jimmy and Shannon’s Father Michael is wonderfully acted, free and spot-on quirky. Jimmy tells Father Michael that he heard his parents discussing that Father Michael wears make-up. Father Michael is honest. Jimmy suggests that Father Michael allow him to be his make-up artist. Though Father Michael prefers putting on his own make up, with good will, he lets Jimmy add lipstick, rouge and eye-shadow to his face. The two bond during this amazing scene because the actors are “in the moment” superb.
As Jimmy, Hari Nef is adorably believable without pushing any of “behaviors” to get a laugh. Shannon’s prodigious versatility as an actor has him portray cruel thugs (Bullet Train) and Elvis (Elvis and Nixon) to name a few of his screen roles. As Father Michael he is organic, hysterical and profound. He negotiates the whimsical and empathetic priest with an uncanny and otherworldly aspect. Shannon’s delivery of Father Michael’s most philosophical and trenchant lines is sheer perfection in their tossed away thoughtfulness. It is as if Shannon’s Father peers into another realm, expresses what he sees, then retracts from it like nothing extraordinary has happened, though it has.
To round out the gathering Mrs. Drinkwater (the heartfelt Heather Alicia Simms) shows up looking for the gold wedding band that she gave Dan and forgot to take back. Dan and Marta have not returned with the beers, so Father Shannon and Jimmy introduce themselves and Mrs. Drinkwater tells them that her husband was killed in the plane crash. Abruptly, Father Michael announces that they need to have drinks and specifically, depth chargers (shots dropped in a mug of beer). At this point, the wild party begins and when Dan and Marta return with more beer, the events revolve upside down and sideways as each takes their turn at Karaoke and “lets it all hang out.” Kudos to Hari Nef, Michael Shannon and Heather Alicia Simms for their passionate renditions of their solo numbers.
The fun is in watching the actors enjoy themselves to the hilt and in the process, convey the loneliness and angst each of the characters personally experiences. We appreciate the drunken camaraderie and comfort they share. It is better than that of “old friends” who know “too much” of their pain and torment. Nevertheless, they have just enough information about each other. They understand that they all are imperfect and have experienced loss, uncertainty, confusion. They have been tossed about by life’s seemingly random trials, forced to assign their own meaning to the haphazard and horrible events. Theirs is the sticky understanding that they can help each other through their personal crises that none of them can specifically explain because it can’t be articulated. All they can do is state concrete facts about conditions. But underneath are miles of subsurface emotions, psychic damage, pain, fear, sorrow.
The hope is that they are alive with the determination to keep on “truckin’,” as they receive solace in understanding the ubiquity of their absurd-life-in-death condition. They, like all human beings, roll a metaphoric boulder up a hill, knowing at the top they will slip and fall to the bottom. Then, they will have to do it again and again does Sisyphus of Greek mythology.
For Dan and Marta, the loss of their daughter who overdosed is most acutely felt, a fact they mention then drop. For Mrs. Drinkwater, the loss of her husband has dislocated her and upended her identity about herself. Who is she now and how does she define herself without him? For Nef’s Jimmy, the paralysis is devastating, but it may not be permanent. At one point when Jimmy is alcohol buzzed, he stands up and proclaims that he, “will walk again.” Lastly, Father Michael is negotiating his physical person, his celibacy, his marriage to Mr. Drinkwater (a mysterious notion) and his straddling the otherworldly realms of consciousness and spirit.
Johnson’s play cannot easily be pinned down in its hybrid, comedic absurdism and avant garde elusiveness. It zips along with unlikely and surprising twists with every character dynamic and every character expose. Its strong spiritual themes about life, the afterlife, consciousness and no boundaries between and among these realities, are thought-provoking. The ensemble’s acting is top-notch and their team work reaches a high-point when each performs their solos while the others move into themselves, all creating an exceptional, flowing dance.
Arin Arbus has staged the wildness so that it is zany yet meaningful with the help of Byron Easley (choreographer). Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, Qween Jean’s costume design, Scott Zielinski lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman’s original music and sound design effectively capture the director’s vision and enhance Johnson’s themes about human nature, pain and seeking to escape from it with like-minded others through alcohol or just letting go. In this production, which emphasizes humanity, forgiveness, understanding and empathy, we realize the isolation of individuality and the commonality of emotions whether joyful or sorrowful, that often prompt escapism to crazy, if only for a moment in an eternity of time.
This is one to see. It ends January 8 and runs with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.tfana.org/current-season/des-moines/overview
Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon directed by Arin Arbus spike Terrence McNally’s 1980s New York City “romance for the ages” Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune with organic authenticity and powerhouse performances. Both actors cleverly negotiate the difficulties of comedy by not playing for humor. Their characters are driven by overt and subterranean desires, and in that they are humorous. In not pushing for laughs, a grave danger in a play (the laughs change every night based upon a thousand audience variables) the actors come up with the most unexpected and surprising riffs. Considering that these moments are emotionally based, this shows their consummate technique and absolutely glorious listening/effecting. They are among the most talented and superlative of actors in portrayals that are precisely shepherded with adroit skill by Arbus to release their profound and moving sensibilities.
On a superficial level, we assume we know the play which was also made into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer (1991); it’s been revived in New York City, most recently with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in 2002.
In this current time of sexting and posting fleshly photos on Social media “private” and then being hacked into and displayed, the play is downright quaint, even with the nudity. And yet these actors and the director transcend the quaintness, elevate the current thematic mores/trends/folkways, of romance and find the beauty of individuality which is what Terrence McNally strives for in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire De Lune.
What is it about this night, this couple? Distinction despite their “apparent” inconsequentiality in the era of Trumpism! With each other, their particularly shines. McNally brings this into intriguing relief, smartly realized by Arbus, Shannon and McDonald. Their humanity and what makes them who they are inherently is unique and poignant, as they confront the human condition of loneliness, doubt, self-torment and pain in relationships that have decayed like rotten fruit.
The play raises fascinating themes. One is that we underestimate our exceptionalism or convert it into a fear of the unknown in ourselves and a fear of our possibilities. In New York City (the setting of the play is NYC, 1980s) where over 8 million people live and work, the impulse is to maintain a familiar invisibility negotiating the sheer mass of people. Apart from this, many live their lives attempting to be like others in their social groups, even in their “intimate relationships” to the point where they don’t acknowledge soul differences nor respect them.
McNally explores this exceptionalism in two seemingly ordinary lower middle class individuals (a waitress, a short-order cook) that no one would find interesting, especially when folks are striving to become rich in an age of “greed is good.” McNally spins the vitality of these two by examining their depth, prompted by Johnny’s compulsion to realize the opportunity before him with Frankie; this active movement on his part creates the dynamic of their growing involvement with each other and shifting perception about themselves.
After intense love making, Johnny stops himself from disengaging from Frankie. Instead, he does not ignore her and dismiss what has just happened, which Frankie would prefer. He goes deep. In attempting to communicate with her to make sense of who they can be together, he finally explains his “vision” to a radio host convincing him to play the most beautiful music to get Frankie to connect with him. Johnny tells him (in Frankie’s hearing) that he stopped himself from the “usual rosary,” i.e. thinking of “the million reasons” why he should not love Frankie, why they wouldn’t work out.
The irony is that Johnny pursues what is on another level. They’re physical manifestation of love was “perfect.” And that is an indication of possibilities, of recognizing what is profound within each of their souls. Johnny senses her uniqueness. And for that reason he will not follow the path he followed many times before – forgetfulness, dismissal, staying superficial. With the courage of his convictions, he persists in attempting to persuade her to do the same: to go deep.
Johnny’s action which creates the arc of development has little to do with a repeat performance of “sex” and all to do with seeing each other on a soul/spiritual level. From Johnnie’s perspective, if they can achieve that, their relationship will be able to build and grow. It’s what Johnny means about “connection,” that ethereal thing that can happen during making love, but not always. He and Frankie have experienced it and for some reason Frankie fears or is defensive about a continued intimacy with conversation. In attempting to have Frankie “connect” with him again, Johnny intuits that they need to hear the music of transcendence to take them out of the mundane. That he hopes will ease the way back for her to engage on that other level once more. Indeed, it is that level on which the finest, most truthful relationships are based.
To miss the depth of what is happening between the characters is not doing justice to McNally’s play or the performances and direction. This is the focus that remains alive and present in this wonderful revival. Johnny believes in that profound level of connection. Frankie fears, eschews and resists it. McDonald and Shannon make us care why these two behave in their “compulsions.” They make us care whether they can become the couple for “all time,” “Frankie and Johnny.”
What I particularly appreciate is how McNally has reverse troped the characters of Frankie and Johnny in the backdrop of a culture which is uber jaded regarding “love” and “romance.” Arbus, Shannon and McDonald have mined the gold in McNally’s ironic twists and tweaks.
Here, the man wants intimacy, love and bonding. The woman just wants sex, a slam, bam, thanks, see ya. Frankie is beyond skeptical and doubtful about Johnny. She closes him out, doesn’t hear what he is saying, doesn’t “connect,” until after she slaps him.
Because of Frankie/Audra McDonald’s revelatory inner authenticity-her resistance to Johnny/Shannon’s importuning her to “go deep,” warning alarms go off. If one has studied or read the M.O. of abused women, they should “get” McDonald’s Frankie’s impulsive, defensive reactions and nervousness. She has been abused in a way that has damaged her psychically so that all bets for true intimacy are off. She can’t allow herself to take that risk again, regardless of the physical “something” between them. That can be dismissed as sex, nothing more which is precisely what Frankie seeks to do, but Johnny will not let her get away with it.
McNally’s characterization of Frankie resonates even more strongly today. Current sexual predation numbers despite all the #MeToo publicity and positive directions have not decreased. Physical/sexual abuse transcends economic and social class backgrounds. Wives of billionaires are abused as are women of partners of lower socioeconomic classes. Often women who have been abused cannot be intimate. They will have sex and may seek it out as a form of control. But the abuse must be worked through before intimacy becomes welcome.
Abuse from a former partner we discover is making Frankie resist Johnny which she reveals in Act II. Some have suggested the play can be done in one act. The intensity of the characterizations has eluded these critics; Frankie’s violence and then revelation about why she reacts as she does must come full bore in the modulations after the radio host plays a transcendent song that will “connect” them. And by the conclusion as we follow the journey of how they both work through their psychic damage, we see they are together and perhaps “perfectly” as Johnny suggests in Act I.
The development is crucial and needs the breadth that McNally gives it. At the end of Act I when Frankie appears to be persuaded by Johnny to become intimate in the way he wishes, she “controls” and pushes him to have sex which we discover at the beginning of Act II “fails.” Johnny’s “failure” is humorously rendered by the actors. However, this “failure” also reveals that “the connection” between them still isn’t trusted by Frankie. That doesn’t stop Johnny from persisting, and they both become adorable and familiar to each other in their gradual revelation of the truth of themselves.
McDonald’s portrayal of McNally’s Frankie is right-on: her fear of intimacy, her insistence to control sex, to control him is paramount. Her abusive reaction to him is also spot-on. Her breakthrough effected by both actors beautifully as Shannon stops the abuse and kisses the hand that slapped him is an important turning point. We know something happened to her in the past; Johnny senses it and is lovingly helping her work through it. His attempt to connect with her is scintillating. It is an irony that she converts the beauty of this moment back to sex and “wanting him.” In showing her “desire”, she is actually pushing him away. No wonder Johnny’s “manhood” fails him. He wants more than a little friction! Shannon is just terrific in effecting this with sensitivity and great feeling.
In Act II Johnny has another hurdle after she reveals she has been abused. He must convince her to move beyond the need to control using sex, and recognize that between them there is the opportunity for something transcendent and profound. In their uniqueness, such riches are available to them because of who they are together. This is rare, it isn’t possible for others and how fortunate/destined they are that they have “found” each other.
This sensitivity from a guy who seeks to make a connection on another level and eventually understands how to do this with a beautiful song to “get there,” is mind-blowing. One might say cynically, “Men are just not like this!” “The playwright is gay and writing his own fantasy male.” Or these characters are simply beyond the pale and this is a modern “fairy-tale!” Well, that is missing McNally’s searing point which Arbus and the actors have elicited in this production. This is possible. But what one must risk is failure, or being ego-less. Risking the pain of failure is frightening, especially if one has gone down that road before.
Arbus, Shannon and McDonald apply their brilliant talents seamlessly. The actors convince us Frankie and Johnny are possible because of the actors’ stunning and detailed inner logic which simmers with backstory. If it is possible for them, it might be available for other “Frankie and Johnny’s” in a universe of lonelyhearts. Their relationship is a beacon and a warning not to be like married couples who married out of fear and never “connected,” or who were matched up by others because they were “perfect” for one another, only they weren’t.
Perhaps one of the strongest themes of this production is found by looking at how Frankie and Johnny evolve together “magically” to achieve a level that many couples don’t achieve. The play begs the question, why are Frankie and Johnny so stellar and original? Why can’t their evolution be the norm, not the exception?
The reasons are multitudinous. But one of the reasons is that our culture and society warps men and women with platitudes and tropes and gender annihilation in some quarters. “Men don’t cry.” “Don’t be gay, be a manly man.” “Women are best being quiet and looking pretty.” Women who are feminists are feminazis. Women must look only a few ways to be feminine and beautiful.
The fact that the nullifying stereotypes behind such commentary still exist today is appalling; and now there is a Trumpist backlash that embraces such thought. On social media and beyond, there is an actual collective of Incels. On the opposite side of the spectrum, sexual predation and abuse are as old as time, and paternalism and misogyny. It is tragic that there is a necessity for a #MeToo movement because of the misogyny and paternalism inherent in our folkways and mores.
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune flies in the face of all this noise. It reminds us of the humanity of individuals, not of the stereotypes of genders. This production encourages us to look into the souls of individuals and make those priceless connections which rebel against that which would attempt to defile the bounty of our humanity by slopping it on the trash heap of stereotypes and labels. Bravo, to McNally’s original vision and Arbus,’ Shannon’s and McDonald’s adherence to it, allowing the themes of the play to soar along with the incredible portrayals of these wonderful characters.
Kudos to all the artistic creatives: Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design) Emily Rebholz (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) Nevin Steinberg (Sound Design) J. Jared Janas (Hair, Wig & Makeup Design) Claire Warden (Intimacy & Fight Director).
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune runs with one intermission at the Broadhurst Theatre (44th Street between 7th and 8th) in a limited engagement until 25th August. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.