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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 28, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In New York: `Frankie and Johnny’

In real-life lovemaking, the grunts are often followed

by the giggles. In Terrence McNally’s splendid and funny play, first

produced by the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987 and later made into

a less splendid film with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, the title

characters begin their provocative affair in the dark with the aforementioned

prelude. When the lights come up on "Frankie and Johnny in the

Clair de Lune," we find that Frankie (Edie Falco), a frumpish,

40ish waitress, has brought the considerably less than Prince Charming

Johnny (Stanley Tucci), a recently hired short-order cook, home to

her dumpy apartment in the West 50s for what she thinks will be a

quick roll in the hay.

Neither she nor Johnny are fast and loose swingers. But Frankie has

had her eye on this rather talkative, Shakespeare-reading, omelet

flipper ever since he first arrived at the greasy spoon. An early

movie followed by late sex, some polite small talk and a cordial exit

line are all Frankie was really expecting from Johnny.

But wonder of wonders, Johnny isn’t about to quit or leave the plain

and down-to-earthy Frankie to her nightly ritual of ice cream and

TV. Johnny ogles and Frankie stares. Johnny babbles and Frankie balks.

When Johnny tells Frankie he could watch her comb her hair forever,

she snaps back, "Get real." The more attentive, intimate,

and amorous Johnny gets, the more Frankie is apt to say something

like, "I don’t know if you’re playing games or if you’re serious."

Frankie and Johnny are both playing their own games

— the game of over-40 lovers who have been through the mill and

are desperately in need of new defenses against old hurts. While Frankie

finds it difficult to believe in Johnny’s inexplicable, ever-increasing

interest, Johnny finds it difficult to understand why she so stubbornly

resists his desire for them "to connect."

The heart of McNally’s play lies in Johnny’s refueling of the emotional

fires that Frankie continually douses with icy and sometimes angry

retorts, and meat loaf sandwiches. But the soul of this lovely play

is the exploration of the bonding of two lonely people who eventually

come to discover that they have more reasons to "connect"

than not. Even as the play continues to delight us with its uncompromised

frankness and cleverness, it is the moment-to-moment unpredictability

and spontaneity of these two very ordinary people that brings the

play its real freshness. (He says: "Wake up, your Prince Charming

has come." She says: "I’m a BLT sort of person and you’re

looking for someone like pheasant under glass.")

When Frankie puts a damper on Johnny with an expression she admits

to never having used before — "You’re barking up the wrong

tree" — it’s an amusing signal that her defenses are weakening,

if not exactly down. It becomes apparent that McNally has not written

a play about casual seduction or promiscuous sex in this age of anxiety,

but rather about the discovery of what is right, not what is wrong,

about people needing people.

Falco, who is best know for her role as Carmela Soprano on HBO’s "The

Sopranos," and currently featured in John Sayles’ new film "The

Sunshine State," is luminous as the merciless but witty pessimist.

Tucci, who, among his stage and film roles played the title role in

HBO’s "Winchell," is irrepressibly winning as the optimistic,

pushy cafe Casanova. And designer John Lee Beatty gives the couple

a low-rent apartment set that’s a character of its own.

The moon of the new millennium may not seem as blue as it was once

thought to be. But thanks to the playwriting skill of McNally ("Master

Class," "Love! Valour! Compassion!"), the extraordinary

acting skills of the two stars, and Joe Mantella’s excellent direction,

"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" basks in the glow

of a new and much more revealing moon. Thanks to its radiant stars

and a director who gives them ample room to shine, this is a revival

that seems like a brand new play. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Belasco Theater,

111 West 44 Street, New York, 212-302-7000. $35 & $75. Through December

29.


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