Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Review by Adam Blair

By Terrence McNally
Directed by Joe Mantello
With Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci
At the Belasco Theatre, New York City

Two actors better known for TV and film than stage work are trying their hand at one of the toughest theatrical genres, the two-hander, in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, both onstage for virtually the entire full-length play, must convince us that they are ordinary and yet not ordinary, plain, poorly educated people who are nevertheless interesting enough to spend an evening with. That they are as successful as they are is a tribute to their acting skills and to the care with which playwright Terrence McNally and director Joe Mantello have choreographed their dance of attraction and animosity.

It helps that the play starts with a bang, or in this case some moans. Frankie (Falco) and Johnny (Tucci), co-workers at a downscale restaurant, are in what romance writers call the throes of passion, and both spend the first few minutes of the play in their birthday suits. But the effect is more realistic than titillating. Bodies are revealed far more easily than minds, hearts and souls for these two, especially Frankie. Falco lets us see how hard Frankie works at keeping her guard up - this is someone who bruises easily, knows it and spends much of her time in a protective mode. The times when she does reveal her empathy and her own capacity to be hurt are made even more devastating in contrast.

Tucci's Johnny seems to be her opposite. He's open, pushy, and needy. Despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, both the date and the relationship have reached their climax, he is convinced that he is in love - and spends most of the evening convincing Frankie that she is, or can be, as well. He is, in that memorable phrase, worse than a hopeless romantic - he's a hopeful one. This despite the fact that life has knocked him to the floor plenty of times.

This is tandem acting of a very high order. Falco is one of those remarkable performers who has enormous resources of craft at her disposal, and yet can make you believe that what comes out of her mouth was formed seconds before in the character's brain, not set down months before in the playwright's typewriter. One of my favorite thoughts on acting is from Ruth Gordon's autobiography "My Side": "Acting is planning, and then doing it as though you'd never had the idea." Falco has this gift.

Tucci has beautiful moments as well, but I was more aware of his choices, vocal inflections and gestures as well-thought-out character traits rather than organic elements of the character. He hits his notes, though, especially in the second act, when his confidence hits a few skids.

This Frankie and Johnny is actually a revival; it was first produced in the late 1980s. The characters' search for connection and compassion in a world just beginning to deal with AIDS (which is never mentioned, by the way) haunts McNally's script, as it would more directly in Love! Valour! Compassion! - which could also have served nicely as the title of this play.

The risk McNally takes, and mostly wins on, is the danger of condescending to his "little people" characters. As if to ward off this criticism he has Frankie explode at Johnny for purposely using words she doesn't understand just to make her feel stupid (which she isn't), and uneducated (well, poorly educated, which they both are.) And this type of play does sometimes elicit a peculiar kind of snobbery: my boyfriend thought Stanley Tucci (who spends much of the play shirtless) was far too buff and gym-toned for a short-order cook (not that he was complaining, exactly). It's the Marty phenomenon: an audience will only be interested in two plain-looking people falling in love (or will only accept their plainness) if they are also lower-middle-class and/or poorly educated - as if money and a college degree make you automatically beautiful.

However, by focusing on the emotional nakedness of these two very alive people - the same emotional nakedness that binds us all together, hunk and lunk, homo and hetero, dreamgirl and dog - McNally avoids the Marty superiority complex. He and these actors do something more: they turn us all, for a few seconds at least, into hopeful romantics.

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