But Johnny, a new kitchen hire at the greasy spoon where she works, frazzles all that; for one thing, he won’t leave. (He does accept the meat loaf, which he says is “direct from Mount Olympus.”) He, too, is a self-admitted failure, but a recovering one, and like many a self-educated savant, speaks grandly, citing Shakespeare, almost as a talisman of self-respect. He needs big language to corral his big feelings.
The clash between Johnny’s expressiveness and Frankie’s armor keeps the play moving forward as it toggles between comedy and pathos. At its best, it tucks one inside the other. Frankie hears Johnny’s fulsome praise of her breasts, her hair, her everything as crazy or mocking or at least reflexively insincere; he hears her rejection of his praise as deliberately deflating.
So when he exults by saying “I want to bask in your body,” she promptly snaps: “Sure you do.”
That two equally last-ditch middle-aged characters with such perfectly interlocking neuroses should find themselves in Frankie’s cheerless Hell’s Kitchen studio — the haunted-looking set is by Riccardo Hernández — is a premise you could pick at. Too much symmetry seems suspicious.
And some of Mr. McNally’s habitual flourishes show through the play’s surface like the underpainting of a different picture: the showbiz references, the orotund dialogue, the frequent intrusion of classical music. Aside from Debussy we are treated to excerpts from Bach, Scriabin, Shostakovich and Wagner — along with a plummy late-night radio disc jockey (Mr. Abraham, in a delightful audio Easter egg) to underline their import.
Still, time has been good to “Frankie and Johnny,” which already had a fine Broadway revival in 2002. (Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci starred.) Its sentimentality hasn’t curdled the way it has in some of Mr. McNally’s many other plays. For one thing, we are far enough away from its specific 1980s setting to see it without the coloring of that decade’s concerns. AIDS is mentioned but has little sting, letting the comedy rise.
Ms. Arbus, making a strong Broadway debut after a decade of critical success Off Broadway, seems to have realized that the comedy is crucial, not only because her stars trail tragic associations from most of their previous roles but also because the play can teeter on the edge of bathos. Her strategy of dryness and detail and specificity — leaving the poetry to Natasha Katz’s lighting — pays off.