Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
Arin Arbus talks about making her Broadway debut with a starry revival of the romantic dramedy
Director Arin Arbus was surprised to discover that playwright Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, Ragtime) was one of her biggest fans. Known for her inventive and lucid stagings of Shakespeare at Theatre for a New Audience, Arbus recalls meeting the five-time Tony winner backstage after a production about a decade ago. "One of the most amazing things about Terrence is he goes to see more plays than almost anybody I know," she says. "It meant a lot to me that he was coming to see my shows. There was one, which I won't name, that was sort of a critical failure, and he wrote a note to someone on staff talking about what he loved about the production. That meant so much to me because, after you get kicked in the gut, when somebody like him still responds to it, that's amazing."
Turns out McNally wanted to do more than compliment Arbus, he hoped to collaborate with her, so he invited her to direct a revival of his 1987 two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. After years of prep and planning, the production is now on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre starring six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and Tony and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon.
Arbus -- who studied fine art at Bates College before segueing to directing with an internship at the Williamstown Theatre Festival -- admits she was shocked when McNally came to her with the project. "I had never worked on Broadway before, and I also hadn't done a lot of modern plays," she says. "Granted, Frankie and Johnny is 30-some-years old but, in comparison to Shakespeare, it's contemporary!"
Unfolding on one intense night in a Hell's Kitchen studio in the '80s, Frankie and Johnny is a raw romantic dramedy about two middle-aged, blue-collar coworkers disillusioned by life and love. It opens with boisterous sex, but while guarded waitress Frankie (McDonald) thinks it's a one-night stand, fiery short-order cook Johnny (Shannon) has something more permanent in mind. The next few hours are filled with passion, profanity, nudity, snacking and classical music as they discuss the future of their relationship.
"I think it's a poetic play disguised in naturalistic clothing," says Arbus. "There's something operatic about Terrence's writing. Part of that has to do with the way that music is integrated into it. But it gives the illusion of being kitchen sink and it isn't quite."
Since Arbus had only seen the movie of Frankie and Johnny, she did a deep dive to find video of previous stagings. "I watched the original Kathy Bates production and I looked on YouTube," she says. "I think it's helpful to see different productions. You can identify the problems that need to be solved -- not necessarily how to solve them, but what they are."
One issue she realized she needed to address was the power dynamic between the lovers. If not carefully calibrated, the persistent Johnny could come off as creepy or, worse, scary. "Frankie does have a bit of language about wanting him to leave, and she means it, but you also have to believe that she's choosing to let him stay," says Arbus. "That's tricky, and before we got into the rehearsal room that was a concern for me. But now I'm very convinced by what the two of them are doing. Throughout the play, I think they are negotiating issues around consent -- not just sexual but emotional consent. They're so damaged and world-weary and complex that their negotiation feels real to me, despite Johnny's sort of aggressiveness. It's not an object lesson, their interactions feel alive and human and specific."
While there aren't any epic Shakespearean battle scenes, there's plenty of sensitive physical business that Arbus staged in partnership with intimacy and fight director Claire Warden. "She did the sex and violence for us," Arbus says, laughing. "She provides an infrastructure that allows everybody to feel open and safe and able to communicate about what's happening. It's great for them and it's great for me. One of the things Claire talks about is that there has to be enthusiasm every step of the way, and if there ever isn't then we have to stop and figure out another approach. It's intense what they're doing."
Indeed, by the end we've seen the characters stripped naked, both literally and figuratively, and Arbus gives their final moment of communion a breathtaking, almost cinematic touch. It's illustrative of why McNally was so confident that she was the right director for Frankie and Johnny, despite her lack of Broadway credits. "Broadway feels like a very foreign world to me, and yet, strangely, this also feels like every show I've ever directed," she says. "The process is pretty much the same. For Terrence to have entrusted the play to me and then to get to work with these extraordinary stage animals, I feel very grateful for this opportunity."
Top image: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Photo by Deen van Meer.