SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Frankie and Johnny are two almost strangers in the night. Terrence McNally's celebrated 1987 play begins with a few bleats of passion between a short-order cook with scarred hands and a waitress with shattered dreams but opens up into their two attempts at intimacy that fills their conversation until dawn. Audra McDonald is Frankie, the waitress; Michael Shannon is Johnny, the cook, in this year's Broadway revival of "Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune." And they join us in our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
AUDRA MCDONALD: Thank you for having us.
MICHAEL SHANNON: Pleasure.
SIMON: I hope this isn't awkward. But I have to tell you, I almost didn't recognize you with your clothes on.
SHANNON: Mission accomplished.
SIMON: We should explain (laughter) - you spend much of the time onstage without clothes on. I gather, for the scenes we're talking about, you had - what I guess is called in the business - an intimacy director.
MCDONALD: Yeah, this is a new phenomenon for Broadway, for sure. This is the - I think the first time an intimacy director has been used in a Broadway show. And we had a wonderful woman who came in and not only choreographed our love scenes, as well as the fight scenes; she also sat down with each of us prior to any physical work that we did and spoke to us about what our boundaries are, separately, what we were comfortable with, what we were not comfortable with.
And then she brought us together as a group, and we then spoke as a group. And then she sort of created this wonderful safe space for us to be able to explore the physical intimacy these two characters have at the beginning of the show and do it in a way that was always filled with communication and safety. And I don't know. What do you think, Mike? Just created a safer space for us to work.
SHANNON: You know - because I've done other scenes like that over the years, particularly in film and stuff - and without someone like that, you're really just hoping that the other person is going to treat you with respect. And you - there's no one to talk to about it, you know? So it's just nice to have an advocate, if you will.
SHANNON: But I think we got lucky because I think we're both innately very respectful. But that's not always the case.
SIMON: Michael Shannon, let me ask you about Johnny. Frankie and Johnny are in Frankie's apartment. And she has an assignation with him, no doubt about it. But then she specifically, clearly, lucidly asks him to leave, and he keeps refusing. Nowadays, that - nothing remotely charming about that. That's sinister and creepy, isn't it?
SHANNON: As the person who's advocating for Johnny on planet Earth right now, I would have to say, no, I don't agree with that. But...
SIMON: Well, advocate.
SHANNON: Well, these are lonely, damaged, frightened people. And I think the value in the play is to see people, particularly Johnny, fighting to get through that barrier to connect with this - with Frankie. And he's just saying there is something better for both of us.
MCDONALD: There is hope.
SHANNON: Don't give up. Like - and that's a hard process. And, you know, unfortunately, I know a lot of people struggle to watch that and feel comfortable with it. But...
MCDONALD: Theater isn't comfortable all the time, too.
MCDONALD: And I think - within this, and it's interesting that you say that she sort of lucidly says, I want you to get out of my apartment...
SIMON: Half a dozen times.
MCDONALD: She does say that. But there are other times when she offers him food. She lets him stay. She sits down and gets into conversations with him. There are moments where she's genuinely interested in what he has to say. The whole play is a negotiation. And if we eliminate all bad behavior from theater, you don't have theater. I mean, I understand that it can be triggering for some people. And there are moments that Frankie says outright, you're a creep. But then there's other moments that she's completely drawn in.
And then what - the great thing about what Arin Arbus, our wonderful director, has done is she's - in the key moments where decisions need to be made, she has made sure that it is very clear that Frankie is giving consent.
SIMON: What do you think Frankie and Johnny, as characters in a play, have to say today to people who meet online?
MCDONALD: Well, I mean, Frankie, in the first act, would say, stay away (laughter). Stay away.
MCDONALD: But at the same time, there is hope at any age that there is the possibility, still, of love. This play was born out of the fact that Terrence McNally was turning 50. He had just ended a relationship, and he was feeling very lonely. And a friend of his said, well, let's face it, Terrence - you've had your last cookie. And so Terrence was thinking that there was just...
MCDONALD: ...There was no romance or love, anything like that, left for him at this point. And that's literally what the play was born out of.
SIMON: Terrence McNally received the lifetime Tony Award for achievement this week. Both of you have done so many fine plays. What is it about doing his dialogue that you notice and gives you a particular pleasure?
SHANNON: The thing I love about doing this play, and Terrence in general - I've never worked with a playwright where I get the sense, with what they're writing, that they are actively attempting to take care of people, that they are trying to genuinely, like, heal people and heal himself through the act of writing the play. He's crusading. He's advocating a different kind of way of being with what he's writing, as opposed to just, you know - like, look how clever I am or whatever.
MCDONALD: Also, I think - because Terrence is someone who, you know - theater has meant the world to him from the time he was a young boy - and I think theater healed - not healed him but certainly - I think he's giving back in a way. He's like a wide-eyed child when it comes to theater, still, at the age of 80. And he understands the power of it, and he understands the power of being able to heal through theater and educate through theater and move people through theater. And so I think that's what he is trying to give back in the way that he has received it with his plays.
SIMON: Is "Frankie And Johnny" a love story or something else?
MCDONALD: Well, I think it's a love story. But I think not all love stories are, you know, with, you know, pretty bluebirds and hearts and flowers falling on everybody. You know, I mean, love stories can be rough and raw. And it's two people, I think, not only inching towards trying to fall in love with each other or, you know, whatever that is that they end up having, but also to try and make something of their lives. So yeah, I think it's a love story in all that that word encompasses.
SHANNON: The thing I always find fascinating about love is that anybody ever speaks about it with any certainty. We all come up with our own version of it. Johnny definitely has a very idiosyncratic version of it. And for Frankie, it's something that...
MCDONALD: It means pain.
SHANNON: Yeah. So, you know, at one point in the play, they're talking about suicide. These are two people that wake up some days - they're like, why am I...
MCDONALD: What am I doing?
SHANNON: ...What am I doing?
SHANNON: Like, what am I doing?
MCDONALD: Yeah. What do I have to live for at this point?
SHANNON: Yeah. Yeah.
SHANNON: But there's lots of laughs in the play, too.
MCDONALD: Yes. It's a very funny play, too.
SHANNON: We can't let the - we cannot let the interview (laughter)...
SIMON: There are lots of laughs.
MCDONALD: Seriously, it's...
SIMON: There are lots of laugh in the play...
MCDONALD: It's a comic drama.
SIMON: ...And, if I didn't make enough point of it, nudity.
SHANNON: Yes. Yes. Yes.
SIMON: So what an evening in the theater.
SIMON: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, they are "Frankie and Johnny In The Clair De Lune" - a new production on Broadway. Thank you both very much for being with us.
MCDONALD: Thank you.
MCDONALD: Thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JONES' "SUITE BERGAMASQUE, FOR PIANO, L.75") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.