Before air conditioning, Broadway used to shut down for the summer, and its stars went off to do summer stock. Now it's the reverse - movie and TV stars forgo summer by their pools to do limited runs on Broadway. Hence, in 2000 we got Kelsey Grammer in "Macbeth" and now Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”
Tucci and Falco are both gifted actors, and it's great to have them here. But it's hard to understand why they chose this exceedingly slight play, in which they are both miscast. (The play enjoyed a successful run Off-Broadway 15 years ago, and subsequently was made into a 1991 movie starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.) The title characters work together in a diner, she a waitress, he a short-order cook. One night they go to her place, where, after sex and a lot of talk - mostly about sex - they tentatively decide to live together. As the play begins, with the two going at it on the sofa-bed, Bach's "Goldberg Variations" are heard on the radio. Neither knows classical music. So Johnnie calls the station to find out what the piece was. He asks the deejay to play something special for them. The deejay selects Debussy's "Clair de Lune.”
Thus the ungainly title. Essentially the play is a mood piece. In the second act, however, McNally decides something should happen. The plot, such as it is, hinges on the making of a Western omelet. (In McNally's play's, bad things often happen to good people in the kitchen.) Little about McNally's dialogue rings true, and the mishap that ultimately brings the two together seems especially forced. Somehow all this was vaguely plausible 15 years ago with Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh, because they made you believe they were lonely, wounded souls wearily seeking companionship. If there was nudity back then, it must have been limited and discreet. Here it is blatant and, from the very outset, it works against the play. Tucci has a very muscular body, suggesting he spends far more time pumping iron than slinging hash, hardly what one expects of a bleary sad sack. Falco has sorrowful but deeply inviting eyes. Her body is fleshy but voluptuous. It's hard to imagine she has trouble finding lovers or that this might be her last chance. (Moreover, a bikini wax doesn't seem right for a waitress. An actress/waitress maybe, but not, like Frankie, a fulltime waitress.) Because the actors are physically so far from the characters, the dialogue seems unusually brittle and artificial. It's hard to accept that this chatter reflects two people nervously reaching out to each other. It just seems like theater banter. Furthermore, Tucci has been directed to heighten the theatricality of his movement. His gestures are balletic and self-conscious, as if he were an aspiring actor rather than a cook. Falco is properly plaintive, but we can't believe she's desperate enough to "settle."
The direction is by Joe Mantello, who is better at stylized plays than this kind of naturalism. John Lee Beatty's set finds poetry in the clutter of a cramped New York apartment. It is beautifully lit by Brian MacDevitt. Laura Bauer's costumes give the pair a suitable mundanity. Still, there must have been some other two-character play that would have been a better vehicle for Falco and Tucci than this Hell's Kitchen romance.
For all its rough language and nudity - full frontal and full backal (Kathleen Turner and Nicole Kidman, eat your shy hearts out) - there is something sweetly innocent about Terrence McNally's valentine to romantic love, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."
And its revival last night at the Belasco Theatre, with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci playing this raw two-hander with exquisite finesse and neatly abrasive nuance, proved top-notch.
Indeed, their superlatively natural acting may be better than this attractive yet fairly slight play deserves.
The situation is not unfamiliar: After flirting a little at the same greasy spoon, a short-order cook and a waitress hook up one Saturday night on a first date.
A movie, a few drinks and, literally as the play starts, they end up nude, huffing and puffing in bed in her 10th Avenue studio apartment. As the old song put it, "Frankie and Johnny were lovers."
Both are somewhere in their early 40s and have been around the block a few times. He is divorced, with two kids he rarely sees. She is fresh off an abusive relationship.
Two leaky vessels on a sea of love - an experiment perhaps to be repeated, perhaps not. But Johnny seems to be taking the encounter too seriously. He thinks he has met the love of his life.
Does he, in the heat of the moment, tell this to every girl willing to huff and puff? After all, he admits, he was once jailed two years. For forgery, no less.
Frankie is somewhat skeptical and more than a little scared.
What kind of guy has she got there in the wee small hours, who doesn't want to go home, and is staring at her with a positively scary concentration?
She tells him he is "either very intense or very crazy." Which?
He lives in Brooklyn Heights, but says he was born in Allentown, Pa. She was born in Allentown. This is the first of several either bewildering coincidences - or his artfully planned deceptions.
Joe Mantello has directed this ambivalent love lyric with unobtrusive skill, sharper and tougher than the 1987 original, measuring McNally's dramatic rhythms precisely and letting the actors meld with the play.
Both play and players are atmospherically helped by John Lee Beatty's closely observed shabby setting and the lighting, including that special clair de lune by Brian MacDevitt.
Tucci is flamboyant, charming and brilliantly ambiguous - he could be Mr. Good Guy or, just possibly, Mr. Goodbar, the serial killer.
Falco, bringing with her that wry, bittersweet wariness that is her specialty in "The Sopranos," has the difficulty of matching the memory of Kathy Bates in the original production.
Yet Falco, with her shopworn luminosity, is lovable, vulnerable and as amazing as Tucci.
When Tony time comes round next May, let's hope the nominators and voters have long memories - for these two are surely the first contenders.
To be nude is not to be naked.
This essential distinction is being made with remarkable wit and humanity by Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, the stars of (and sole performers in) the stirring revival of Terrence McNally's ''Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,'' which opened last night at the Belasco Theater.
Ms. Falco and Mr. Tucci, you may have heard, start off the evening without a stitch of clothing as the play's title characters conclude what sounds like a very satisfying round of sex. But that doesn't begin to account for the enchanted spell of intimacy in which Mr. McNally's tale of two co-workers, a waitress and a cook in a greasy spoon, proceeds to enwrap its audience.
Once Ms. Falco speaks, for instance, as opposed to moaning primally, it's clear that her character, Frankie the waitress, might as well be wearing chain mail. Technically, she's as bare as a newborn babe. But the skeptical crook of her eyebrows as Mr. Tucci's Johnny recounts a childhood memory is the equivalent of an iron helmet with its visor lowered.
Obviously, Frankie's well-conditioned defenses are up. It is watching her relax them by cautious degrees in the rest of the play that feels so painfully personal. She never seems more exposed than toward the end of the first act, when she is wearing street clothes and ready to leave her apartment. It's only when Frankie needs to get dressed that you know she's really naked.
Under the gentle, affectionate direction of Joe Mantello, Ms. Falco (of ''The Sopranos'' and the current movie ''Sunshine State'') and Mr. Tucci (a co-director and star of the film ''Big Night'') are executing a dangerous striptease you'll never find in a peep show or even in the full-frontal display of Kathleen Turner in ''The Graduate.''
Being naked, once you're committed to the idea, is easy. Laughing spontaneously, irrationally and at length, as Ms. Falco and Mr. Tucci must do early in the play, is hard.
Ms. Falco's performance especially is a reminder of how unsettlingly revealing good acting can be. She and Mr. Tucci, who, though slightly miscast, is still deeply touching, make a splendid case for putting a seemingly small play in a big Broadway house. And yes, they happen to wind up convincing you that ''Frankie and Johnny'' is not a small play after all.
Though its dialogue can suggest the easy rhythms of a slick commercial comedy, there are haunted depths to ''Frankie and Johnny,'' carved from the universal fear that human connection may be an impossible dream. Mr. McNally has been occupying himself of late with books for musicals (''Ragtime,'' ''The Full Monty''), and it's a pleasure to be reintroduced to the nuanced, bracingly insightful author of ''Frankie and Johnny'' and ''Lips Together, Teeth Apart.''
Memorably produced in 1987 by the Manhattan Theater Club (with the divine Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh) and later translated into an amiable but diffuse movie (starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino), ''Frankie and Johnny'' portrays two people for whom falling into bed is not the consummation but the first step of a relationship.
Not that first-date sex is the sort of thing the middle-aged Frankie and Johnny do regularly, at least not anymore.
It's the 1980's, and the long party of promiscuity of the 60's and 70's has been brought to a close. In his New York Times review of the Manhattan Theater Club production, Frank Rich said that Mr. McNally had possibly created ''the most serious play yet about intimacy in the age of AIDS.''
But ''Frankie and Johnny'' turns out to be in no way anchored by topicality. On one level it belongs to the tradition of works like Paddy Chayefsky's ''Marty,'' in which two unglamorous, emblematically little people are given a chance to escape solitude. Certainly ''Frankie and Johnny'' is, for all its breeziness, just as sentimental.
On another level, it's a serious romantic debate play, a bit like David Hare's ''Skylight,'' in which a man and a woman argue different positions on the chances for their forging a relationship. The loquacious, insistent Johnny, for whom the word intense seems inadequate, takes the pro side.
Despite its being his first date with Frankie, he knows what he wants out of life, and she's it.
Frankie understandably wonders if she hasn't brought home a maniac. Johnny is the kind of guy who asks her to open her robe so he can gaze at her sex organs and keeps gleefully discovering suspiciously coincidental points of similarity in their pasts. Frankie would just as soon Johnny leave her cramped apartment (designed with juicy verisimilitude by John Lee Beatty) after sex and a sandwich.
The debate is couched in what may be the most incisive postcoital dialogue written for the stage. The evening's dynamic and suspense stems from this clash of wills. Will Frankie let Johnny stay the night? Or even longer? Without overstating the case, Mr. McNally lets you know that the clock is ticking for his anxious title characters.
It's not the old biological clock. The sound of the silence behind the play's chatter is an awareness that life is short and, for those unwilling to make leaps of faith, unendingly lonely.
Mr. McNally has written that he has identified with both Frankie and Johnny at different points in his life. In this production, it's Frankie who emerges as the central focus for empathy, partly because Johnny is so sure of his objective and so tireless in pursuing it. The character who hasn't made up his or her mind is generally the more interesting to follow in any play. (''Hamlet,'' anyone?) And Ms. Falco has the benefit of working with the layers afforded by indecision.
There is also a sense that Mr. Tucci's performance is almost too assured, too smooth. His body is so well-toned that it seems odd that Frankie doesn't remark upon it, and his gestures have a dancer's deliberateness. Every time he scratches his head or adjusts his underwear in the first act, it registers as an actor's conscious choice.
His comic timing and rhythmic rapport with Ms. Falco are so good, however, that he doesn't disrupt the richly sustained mood of Mr. McNally's dialogue.
And in the second act, when Johnny is forced into moments of revelation both funny and sad, Mr. Tucci loosens up most appealingly. This Johnny deserves his Frankie.
That's saying something, since Ms. Falco is, in a word, wonderful. Those who know her as the glossily manicured Carmela Soprano or as the very unmanicured jazz musician's wife from the play ''Sideman'' won't recognize her here. And this has nothing to do with her haircut or makeup. It's that Ms. Falco assumes an entirely new vocabulary of being, physical and emotional, for each character she plays.
You could, of course, dissect Ms. Falco's Frankie into a series of telling gestures: the hands held, palms out, like stop signs; the tight, doubtful smile; the sanity-preserving self-assertiveness with which she performs simple tasks like applying hand lotion or spreading mayonnaise.
But the real testament to how fully she inhabits her character comes when she steps to the edge of the stage, as Frankie looks out a window, and her blue eyes are suddenly so large and eloquent with conflict that you want to cry.
Looking into apartment building windows, by the way, is presented as a spectator sport in ''Frankie and Johnny.'' And the play itself offers something of the same voyeuristic thrill.
But whereas Frankie can only speculate on the inner lives and motives of the people framed by window panes and raised Venetian blinds, the play in which she appears affords far more revealing close-ups. It may be only an illusion, as ''Frankie and Johnny'' suggests, that people can ever truly know one another. But Mr. McNally, Ms. Falco and Mr. Tucci make you believe it might just be possible.
Fate has not been kind to the lonely, middle-aged New Yorkers in Terrence McNally's 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, but time has been even crueler to their story.
In its new Broadway revival, which opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, Frankie and Johnny seems as dated and cloying as an old episode of thirtysomething, only with less imaginative dialogue.
McNally choreographed the tense mating dance between forlorn waitress Frankie and Johnny, the short-order cook intent on turning her life around, with a heavy hand and an irritating fondness for touchy-feely clichés. Everything from the lovers' luckless personal histories to their subjects of casual conversation — late-night TV, Western omelets, Shakespeare — has the boilerplate feel of a lame comedy routine or an especially hokey date movie.
Even the plot's apparent premise, that two lost souls can utterly inspire and elevate each other in one evening, is more the stuff of cheap wish-fulfillment fantasy than provocative comedy or drama.
Joe Mantello's breathless, obvious direction may be appropriate to the text, but it does the actors no favors. The Sopranos star Edie Falco races nervously through her lines, swallowing a couple in the process, but at least conveys the character's frantic insecurity. Falco also brings the right sharp, working-class edge to Frankie and gives us glimpses of the vulnerability underlying it.
Stanley Tucci's Johnny is more polished, and more mannered. There is something curiously composed, even ostentatious, about this supposedly awkward, desperate man. To his credit, Tucci does capture Johnny's overbearing persistence, to a fault. When Frankie slaps him at one point, you want to thank her.
Only the most cold-hearted cynic would smirk at this couple's misfortunes or sneer at the progress they make in each other's presence. Then again, only a total sap would believe for a second that this superficially gritty love story could take place anywhere but inside a writer's sentimental imagination.
Nudity and celebrity are clearly a potent combination, and not just for readers of the Star magazine. Kathleen Turner's full-frontal exposure surely has something to do with the continuing box office allure of the critically reviled "The Graduate," and now "Sopranos" star Edie Falco and movie regular Stanley Tucci are causing a bit of a stir by stripping down for this Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's 1987 romantic comedy. How much of a stir? Well, one eager-looking patron approached another during intermission with the odd query, "How close are you sitting?" Pretty close, came the answer. Referring to a line of dialogue from act one, the first patron then asked, "So is he really uncircumcised?"
Oh, dear. What is gained in verisimilitude in depicting post-coital intimacy onstage, it could be argued, is lost in audience distraction. But for most theatergoers attending Joe Mantello's splendidly realized, very appealing production, such prurient concerns aren't likely to figure prominently. Clothed and unclothed, volubly in flagrante or quietly at emotional loggerheads, Falco and Tucci imbue McNally's colorfully drawn characters with tremendous warmth and truth and vitality. The play is an old-fashioned will-they-or-won't-they-live-happily-ever-after romantic comedy, updated for the age of anxiety, and the kind of emotional uncertainty and diffidence it explores is as much abroad in the world as it was 15 years back. Frankie and Johnny, a waitress and a short-order cook in a greasy spoon, aren't exactly types you'd see on "Sex and the City," but their barbed interplay over the course of a post-coital night that may or may not get a long encore has the same disarming frankness, the same blunt charm that mark the best writing in that popular series.
The play is set in Frankie's cramped Hell's Kitchen apartment, decorated with an artfully funky accumulation of clutter by John Lee Beatty and lit with slightly seedy authenticity by Brian MacDevitt. The anonymity of the city is suggested by the outlines of neighboring buildings looming monolithically just outside Frankie's windows.
Here Frankie and Johnny have repaired after a satisfactory first date. But after satisfying their mutual desires, they're soon saddled with violently diverging ones. Frankie is ready to withdraw back into her comfortable cocoon of emotional reticence; she wants him out, five minutes ago. Johnny is ready to sing an aria, to dance an endless pas de deux, to buy a tract house. He certainly isn't ready to go home.
Negotiations begin, and Johnny is nothing if not a tough negotiator. A bit beaten up by life, he hasn't lost an ounce of his aggressive romanticism, and Tucci makes his tirelessly loquacious attempts to break down the doors of Frankie's reserve consistently amusing. Now blunt, now sly, now desperate, now impishly comic, Tucci's Frankie may be an emotional bully, but he's a pretty damn charming one, whether he's demanding, point-blank, a chance to admire Frankie's genitalia or quoting randomly from the beat-up Shakespeare he keeps in his locker at work. Some of Johnny's dialogue fairly cries out for a crescendo from a string orchestra -- "Pretend that we're the only two people in the entire world, that's what I'm doing, and it all falls into place" -- but the unaffected ardency of Tucci's performance keeps the going light. Tucci may be a mite too adorable at times, but Johnny is, after all, ready to try any kind of emotional manipulation to achieve his ends.
Falco's Frankie is, of course, the temperamental opposite of Tucci's impassioned romanticism. She's cool, dry, ready with a wry riposte and a baleful stare. Falco is a natural for this no-nonsense character, her urban accent slicing off snippets of dialogue with crisp precision. And both perfs are marked by a splendid physical specificity: Tucci seems to be continually airborne, a lightweight boxer dancing on his toes, while Falco's Frankie is rooted firmly to the floor. While his arms fly out to swipe at her whenever she's within reach, Falco's most telling moment finds Frankie with her hands clasped tightly between her knees, her shoulders slightly hunched, as she sits on the edge of the bed, sad-eyed and uncertain, trembling on the precipice of capitulation.
Capitulate, she does, of course. Although the play is fringed with shadows, McNally does not cheat the audience out of the happy ending the reigning comic tone promises, even if it is a tentative and almost mournfully mundane one, depicting mutual tooth-brushing.
In fact it's only in delineating the shadows that the production comes up somewhat short. As proficient as Tucci and Falco's performances are, they don't always suggest the kind of emotional pain that McNally embeds in his dialogue. "This is the only chance we have to come together, I'm convinced of it," Johnny implores Frankie in act one. "People are given one moment to connect. Not two, not three, one! They don't take it, it's gone forever…"
To achieve the full measure of its poignance and power, the play must convince us of the truth of these words, at least for these two characters in this claustrophobic apartment. It must convince us that the wounds each bears are actually in danger of sealing them off from happiness, and that they've been given one last chance to make peace with their pasts by taking a chance on the future. As played by Falco and Tucci, these two are so commandingly charismatic, so sane and funny and essentially strong-willed, that their emotional baggage could really fit in a carry-on. That the actors do not fully sound the play's darker emotional notes means the playwright sometimes seems to be banging on the same piano keys for stretches in the second act (ultimately the play feels like a one-act uncomfortably drawn out over two).
But this minor failing does not detract from the evening's overall appeal. McNally's dry-eyed romantic comedy is a savory dish that has retained much of its freshness, and it's served up here by a trio of cooks -- Falco, Tucci and Mantello -- who clearly know their way around a grill.