REVIEWS: “Ink” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”
Broadway never sleeps. Here I take a look at “Ink”, the last play of the 2018-2019 Broadway season, and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”, the first play of the 2019-2020 Broadway season! Later this month, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” begins performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. And just like that, the next season kicks into gear.
“Ink” (New Play, Manhattan Theatre Club) (critic’s pick!): Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch is probably best known—and hated—for creating the right-wing cable phenomenon Fox News under the umbrella of his now-defunct News Corp, which included such other brand name media entities as Twentieth Century Fox, HarperCollins, and The Wall Street Journal. “Ink”, an exhilarating new play by James Graham imported from its hit 2017-2018 run in London, dials back the clock to take a look at Murdoch’s first major foray into the news business in the West with his 1969 acquisition of the British daily newspaper The Sun. Rhythmic, kinetic, and enthralling, “Ink” beats out like a procedural thriller, the crime contained within being the tabloidization of our news. While predictable and not terribly informative, the play investigates the seeds of our modern media environment—where scandal and entertainment sell, and truth and fact fall by the wayside—with an electrifying finesse and stagecraft that left me spinning.
Presciently tapping into populist sentiment, the play follows Murdoch (Bertie Carvel in a Tony Award-winning performance) as he purchases The Sun, a failing newspaper, and over the course of a single year aggressively re-imagines and pushes it to the top of the market by “giving the people what they want” and shattering journalistic norms to appeal to the most prurient and basest of human desires and instincts. While Murdoch looms over the play, the story actually focuses on editor Larry Lamb (Johnny Lee Miller) and the day-to-day workings of he and his team. It offers a fascinating look at the way the news used to be made and shared in a pre-Internet era, and is firmly focused on its time and place. Any allegorical connection to the present—and there is plenty to be found—is left to be made by the audience, Mr. Graham smartly avoiding being too on the nose with the portents of his story, which is itself engrossing enough to fill the nearly three-hour running time. The play is honest and humanizing in its account of its subjects, and on its surface has more to say about class strictures in 1960s England than it does about contemporary left-right politics in America.
Director Rupert Goold, and his extraordinary cast and team of designers, dazzle with this 18-member ensemble piece; the action never stops, and the stage never ceases to transmogrify. A towering mélange of desks and filing cabinets (set design by Bunny Christie) offer a multi-tiered and dynamic playing space over which Jon Driscoll’s projections swoop and swirl and Neil Austin’s Tony Award-winning lighting keep the eyes sharply entertained and engaged. Cinematic and absorbing, “Ink” is easily one of the most stellar plays of the season, as evidenced by its whopping six Tony Award nominations and two wins. It is a must-see for any news junkie, historian, or citizen trying to better understand our world. Opened April 24th; runs through July 7th at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Discount Tickets.
“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (Revival Play): It’s been a good year for playwright, librettist, and screenwriter Terrence McNally. He turned 80 back in November. Last week he received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (watch his shamefully un-televised speech here). And last month, a marquee revival of his hit play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (1987) opened on Broadway. This romantic comedy, adapted into a film in 1991 and first revived on Broadway in 2002, is a postcard from another era, the kind of play you don’t see much of anymore, which makes its production—on Broadway, no less—an event. A two-hander about a pair of middle aged, middle class co-workers—Frankie a waitress, Johnny a short order cook—on a first date, it is also a play that is likely to leave you squirming in your seat due to the icky substance of that romance.
As with any two-hander, casting is paramount. Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, as Frankie, is captivating and a true delight to observe on stage. Meanwhile, perennial creep Michael Shannon makes for a good Johnny, precisely because he’s so adept at playing oddball outsiders. Both actors are brilliant, and give gorgeously rich performances. That’s why it’s all the more confounding that they never convincingly emit sparks of romance, nor read as the exceedingly ordinary, low-rent people they are meant to be. The play opens on Frankie and Johnny having sex late at night on the sofa-bed in Frankie’s studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Frankie, thinking this the satisfying cap of a one-night stand, expects Johnny to leave post-climax. Johnny, on the other hand, won’t, and proceeds to profess his love for Frankie as he finds new ways to filibuster and overstay his welcome. And so it goes, until morning. Endearing from one angle, and downright creepy from another, Mr. McNally’s ear for dialogue and skill at sketching compelling characters saves the enterprise, but it is still a mixed bag.
The dramatic propulsion of the thinly-plotted (and too long) play consists of watching one “psychotically polite” woman (as Heidi Schreck would put it), wait out the clock until she can get her weirdo date to leave her apartment. Frankie even jokes that she half expects Johnny to kill her. Of course, the famous song of the same title, inspired by true events, finds Frankie shooting Johnny dead after he cheats on her with another woman. The purpose of this revival was no doubt to celebrate Mr. McNally’s career in a milestone year of his life. While “Frankie and Johnny” is popular and probably cheaper to stage (one set, two actors) than most other plays in his considerable canon, I wish the producers had opted for one of Mr. McNally’s more daring works on gay themes like “The Lisbon Traviata” (1989), “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1991), “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1994), or “Corpus Christi” (1998). While enjoyable—despite the squirms—this serviceable revival by director Arin Arbus never quite justifies its existence. Opened May 30th; runs through July 28th at the Broadhurst Theatre. Discount Tickets.