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