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Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in Frankie and Johnny

Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon on Making Sparks Fly in Frankie and Johnny

There’s a man and a woman. Not young, not old. No great beauties, either one. They meet where they work: a restaurant and it’s not the Ritz.

In four simple phrases, Terrence McNally describes the title characters in his enduringly popular comic romance Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Since the play’s 1987 debut, audiences have fallen in love with the quick-witted waitress and the soulful cook who woos her in a cramped tenement apartment. Just in time for McNally’s 80th birthday, Frankie and Johnny is getting a gorgeous new Broadway production starring six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and two-time Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon. A 16-week limited engagement begins on May 4 at the Broadhurst Theatre, directed by Obie Award winner Arin Arbus.

“Audra and Michael are two of my very favorite actors,” says McNally, “and they’re going to bring a surprising new look at this play. It’s like having two champion gladiators ready to go, and I could not be more excited.”

The feeling is mutual, as McDonald and Shannon made clear during a recent chat before posing for photos with their Tony Award–winning playwright. “I haven’t done a lot of plays that are simply about people’s capacity to love one another,” says Shannon, who gets to show off his tender side after acclaimed performances on stage (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bug) and screen (The Shape of Water, Revolutionary Road, TV’s Boardwalk Empire). “I’ve done plays about all the terrible things human beings are capable of, and it’s such a relief to work on a play that’s about how lovely people can be.”

McDonald, who won two of her record-setting six Tonys in works written by McNally (Master Class and Ragtime), marvels at his ability to pivot between humor and heartache. “Terrence’s writing is deceptively simple,” she observes. “He peppers you with jokes as the characters float above what they’re really thinking and feeling, and then he comes underneath and punches you in the gut in a very deep and realistic way. I love that unexpected quality.”

Late in the evening of their first date, Frankie and Johnny spar over his rush toward a committed relationship and her wariness at his unbridled enthusiasm. “I don’t think you realize how serious I am about us,” Johnny says after they share a cold meatloaf sandwich in her tiny kitchen. “What us?” Frankie retorts. “There is no us.” McNally’s gift for crafting wonderful women’s roles attracted an array of actresses to Frankie and Johnny, from original star Kathy Bates to Edie Falco, Laurie Metcalf, Rosie Perez, and, in the 1991 movie version, Michelle Pfeiffer opposite Al Pacino.

“Given that the play starts out with two people in the throes of passion, there’s such an innocence about these lonely creatures,” McDonald says. “As damaged as they are, they seem incredibly innocent and pure. They’re searching for the same thing — one is scared to death of it, and the other is running toward it with all his might, determined to take the other one with him. There’s something exhilarating about that.”

Agrees Shannon, “Terrence is not trying to show you how ‘crafty’ he is. There are certain writers who seem very proud of their persona, but Terrence has his eye on something more than proving he’s brilliant. He writes from a place of compassion and longing.”

For theatergoers, the big thrill in Frankie and Johnny’s return to Broadway for the first time in 16 years is the opportunity to see two brilliant star performers match wits. McDonald, of course, has the distinction of having won Tony Awards in every acting category, demonstrating her mastery of both musicals and plays. Shannon, who has done most of his stage work in Chicago and Off-Broadway, plans to look to his costar for guidance on navigating a major Main Stem production.

“I’m used to tiny storefront theatres, and this is her stomping ground,” he says, gesturing to McDonald. “You’re a legend.” Smiling, she responds, “I’m a huge fan of Michael’s work, and when [lead producer] Tom Kirdahy called and asked if I wanted to do Frankie and Johnny, he barely got the words out before I said ‘Yes!’ I always want to work with people I can learn from, and I just knew that this play was exactly the thing I needed to be doing right now.” Nodding, Shannon says, “We both feel that way.”

McNally understands the allure of pairing Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as Frankie and Johnny. “Audra is a commanding presence,” he says, “so for her to play a vulnerable, somewhat disappointed woman who thinks that the good stuff in life has passed her by is going to be a real surprise. Michael often plays the villain or the heavy; he’s an unlikely lover when it comes to casting, but that makes [their chemistry] even more exciting. I’ve seen how good they are together, and now we’re going to share it with the world.”

The humanity and hope inherent in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune make it a perfect vehicle for these celebrated actors’ return to Broadway — and a must-see event of the spring season. “In the times in which we live, it feels especially important to do a play like this,” says Shannon. Adds McDonald, “The story of two people wanting desperately to connect has even more resonance in this age when we’re all so plugged in to our phones and yet still feel unconnected.”

McNally, who celebrated his 80th birthday in November and has been happily married to Kirdahy for more than 15 years, attributes the play’s lasting appeal to his own view of relationships. “I’m a romantic,” he says, “and no one had written a romantic play about a short-order cook and a waitress who came to New York to be an actress and ended up working at a coffee shop. People tell me, ‘I never thought I would see a play about someone like me.’ I wrote it with a full heart, because I believe in love at any age.”

Learn More About Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune