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
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.