Monday, May 20, 2019

Sentimental Journeys: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Burn This, Doris Day

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Photo: Deen van Meer)

I’ve been skipping productions of Terrence McNally’s two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune for decades – I didn’t see Kathy Bates with F. Murray Abraham or with Kenneth Welsh in the off-Broadway version in 1987, or Edie Falco with Stanley Tucci in the last revival, in 2002 – but I opted to see the latest one, on Broadway, with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. It’s a lousy play, an American variation on an English kitchen-sink drama that begins with a pair of lovers in bed naked, having sex, and then takes a couple of hours to show them opening up to each other in other ways. The (stock) idea is that they’re both desperately lonely but he’s willing to acknowledge it and she isn’t, and, attempting to persuade her that she should see him as more than a one-night stand, he’s got his work cut out for him because emotionally she’s closed down. It’s an unconventional courtship drama with the same basic structure as Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly (1980), which takes a far more inventive approach to the man’s effort to win over the cautious, distanced woman – and which has far more interesting characters. Talley’s Folly is a comedy with serious undertones; Frankie and Johnny tries for loopy romanticism but ends up glum and monochromatic, though with a sentimental ending.

The only reason to see Arin Arbus’s revival is Shannon, who works against the grain of the writing and comes up with something original. American playwrights (and screenwriters too) love these quirky, damaged guys with pure hearts: William Saroyan put several of them on stage in 1939 in The Time of Your Life, but that’s an oddball masterpiece while McNally’s play is cut-rate. Shannon uses that massive head that suggests he’s modeling for a Rouault painting and his slightly soured Method mannerisms and squinty focus to portray a man who ought to be a misfit but occupies so completely his own strange corner of the universe that you get to believe that maybe it’s everyone around him who’s out of place. Shannon is really the weirdest actor. When he started showing up in movies everything he did felt overstated and hammy, but I was knocked out by his performance opposite Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne and John Gallagher in Long Day’s Journey into Night three years ago – a brilliant ensemble – and I’ve liked almost everything I’ve seen him do since, even in movies I hated (like Nocturnal Animals). The only exception was The Shape of Water, but that wasn’t his fault: Guillermo Del Toro, for all his gifts, lacks the imagination to create three-dimensional villains. (He can’t get past his political revulsion of characters like Shannon’s or the fascist general in Pan’s Labyrinth.)

Shannon can be very funny, though his comic rhythms, physical and especially vocal, aren’t like anyone else’s. You’d think that someone with his looks wouldn’t qualify as gnomish, but that’s the adjective that comes to mind for him. I passed him on the street after seeing him in the matinee and I hesitated before telling him how much I’d liked him in it because he doesn’t come across as a guy you could have even a brief common exchange with. (He was perfectly pleasant.)

He and Audra McDonald are certainly an unusual match, but they don’t have much chemistry, and Frankie is not a role that does anything for her. Her diva’s glamor is part of what makes her special; she had it even when she played Bess in Porgy and Bess, even in the relatively small part she took in Mike Nichols’s TV adaptation of Wit. Here she has to bury the glimmer, or feels she has to, and though she has one moving moment at the end of the first act, most of the time she just seems diminished by the script. Michelle Pfeiffer didn’t fall into that trap in the 1991 movie version, which she converted into the tale of a woman with an inner glow who doesn’t think of herself as beautiful. The movie, which McNally and the director, Garry Marshall, expanded for the screen, adding some colorful supporting characters for Nathan Lane and Kate Nelligan, had a scruffy, recycled charm; the casting of Pfeiffer and Al Pacino (though he wasn’t right) had the effect of shuffling off the cramped realism like a snake’s skin to reveal an old-fashioned star vehicle underneath. When you think back to the movie, it feels as if it’s been reduced for the stage, but that’s because it’s such a paltry play.

Adam Driver and Keri Russell in Burn This. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Burn This was also written in 1987, by Lanford Wilson though not, God knows, in a Talley’s Folly mood. It’s the unmistakable remnant of an earlier era in American drama, when Sam Shepard and David Mamet were writing rugged, misanthropic mystery male characters who brought the smell of sex and the threat of violence with them – later versions of Stanley Kowalski but ungrounded by the Freudian and socioeconomic details Tennessee Williams wrote into the character and Marlon Brando added. Pale, the restaurant manager who stalks into the downtown Manhattan apartment his recently dead, gay-dancer brother shared with two friends and winds up in bed with one of them – Anna, a dancer who’s begun making her own pieces – is like Teach in American Buffalo or Lee in True West, except that he’s also sensitive. (Alone with Anna, he breaks down out of grief and a complicated sort of survivor’s guilt.) He’s the last kind of man Anna, who is seeing a rich screenwriter, can see herself falling for, but his anger and self-loathing are sexually potent. The second time she sleeps with him, her boyfriend finds out about it and she tells Pale she doesn’t want to see him again. She puts all that sexual and emotional energy into her work and makes a pas de deux that’s so transparently about them that even Pale, who isn’t exactly a dance aficionado, recognizes them in it. Like Frankie and Johnny, Burn This ends up in a sentimental wash, when Anna has to admit that, you know, this thing is bigger than both of them.

John Malkovich, in the flush of his early stage and movie successes, was the original Pale, playing opposite Joan Allen. (I didn’t see it.) This time around, under Michael Mayer’s direction, it’s Adam Driver, who is flagrantly – I’d say absurdly – miscast. Driver is a fine movie actor, and everyone who’s seen him in the Star Wars movies know he can go dark, but macho menace isn’t remotely in his wheelhouse. Mostly he plays the part for comedy, as if he were impersonating someone tough in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Keri Russell, who was so complex and unsettling on The Americans, gives a bad acting-class performance as Anna; she hits so many words for emphasis in her speeches that you can’t always figure out what the character is trying to say. David Furr doesn’t make the (admittedly difficult) role of Burton, the screenwriter, work; he does bring something to one speech, about Burton’s single gay encounter – wistfulness mixed with surprise – but I’m not sure it’s the right thing; perhaps he might have tried seeding in some befuddlement. The only actor I liked was Brandon Uranowitz as Anna’s other roommate, Larry, who gets all the best one-liners because he is, after all, the straight woman’s gay best friend. (Uranowitz played the composer with the prosthetic leg in the Broadway adaptation of An American in Paris.) In the second act Wilson hints at Larry’s attraction to Burton, but it feels like an afterthought, so all Uranowitz really has to work with are jokes. But at least they’re decent jokes.

Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959).

“Sentimental Journey” was one of the two 1945 Big Band hits that catapulted Doris Day, performing with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, into a famous singing career. (The other was “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.”) She had a silken voice and, though her vocal style in those early years was more understated than it would become in the fifties, you can hear an ebullient personality and a sincere emotionalism just under the surface. Three years later she signed a contract with Warner Brothers and, over the course of most of the next two decades (her last movie was released in 1968), she was a box-office phenomenon, known first for musicals, though most of them were
undistinguished, and then for romantic comedies like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back (in both of which she co-starred with Rock Hudson), which were simultaneously hyperactive and flaccid. And she made the occasional melodrama like Julie and Midnight Lace, both those times playing women victimized by their husbands (Louis Jourdan, Rex Harrison). The parts she played were generally wholesome and insipid and she had a pixie-like quality that sometimes made them unbearable.

Day died a week ago at the age of ninety-seven, and in a tribute to her in The New York Times the next day the film critic A.O. Scott protested that actually she was a Hollywood sex goddess. That claim seems so ridiculous on the face of it that I couldn’t wait to find out what the hell he was thinking, but his argument was indecipherable and his only piece of evidence seemed to be that she wore a low-cut gown with a slit up the leg in the “Shaking the Blues Away” number in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me. That’s a biography of the Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting and one of the classier vehicles she was tossed into, though when you try to remember it years after seeing it, it’s James Cagney as her terrifying gangland lover and not Day who springs to mind.

A handful of Day’s movies, though, are worth looking at. She made three delightful musicals: Calamity Jane (1953), a musical-western hybrid, opposite Howard Keel; The Pajama Game (1957), Stanley Donen and George Abbott’s film version of the Broadway hit; and Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), a circus musical based on a 1935 Rodgers and Hart show. She gives spirited musical-comedy performances in all three, and she does full justice to both upbeat tunes like “I’m Not at All in Love” and “There Once Was a Man” (both from The Pajama Game, the second a duet with John Raitt) and ballads like “The Black Hills of Dakota” and the Oscar-winning “Secret Love” (both from Calamity Jane) and “Little Girl Blue” (Jumbo). I have a special fondness for The Pajama Game, a quintessential fifties musical about the struggle between labor and management in a pajama factory in the Midwest. Day, the only member of the cast who didn’t play her role on stage (Janis Paige did), is rousing and touching by turns.

I certainly haven’t seen all of Day’s film work, but it would be hard to believe that she was ever better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much, where she and Jimmy Stewart play Americans abroad whose little boy is kidnapped to prevent Stewart’s Ben McKenna from revealing what he knows about the murder of a French undercover agent. Yes, this is the movie where she gets to sing the other Oscar-winning song she introduced, “Que Sera, Sera,” though Hitchcock fans will remember that she reprises it under extremely suspenseful circumstances. The John Michael Hayes screenplay explores the tensions in what has been mostly a happy marriage, but in one extremely uncomfortable scene Ben, who’s a doctor, administers a sedative to Day’s Jo before telling her that their son has been taken. It’s a moment you can’t resolve your feelings about, and both actors, not just the redoubtable Stewart, play it beautifully. This movie is no sentimental journey.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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