Frankie and Johnny In The Clair De Lune by Terrence McNally. Directed by Joe Mantello.
Set designed by John Lee Beatty. Lighting designed by Brian MacDevitt. Costumes designed by Laura Bauer. Sound designed by Scott Lehrer. Starring Edie Falco, Stanley Tucci.
The lead actors in any romantic comedy are of paramount importance. Luckily, in the new production of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune that Joe Mantello has directed at the Belasco Theatre, the quality of the actors is never in doubt. It is, however, unfortunate that the superb performances Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci give seem to belong in a play other than the one they're performing.
Make no mistake about it, Falco and Tucci are immensely talented, their significant stage credentials demonstrated every second they are onstage. They certainly don't lack chemistry, which is a good thing, since neither is ever really offstage. Both performers prove equally adept at landing their jokes and putting over their more introspective dramatic moments. In short, Falco and Tucci do absolutely everything they can with roles in which they have simply been miscast.
The Frankie and Johnny described by McNally must be, above all else, ordinary. Frankie (Falco) is a waiter and failed actress, while Johnny (Tucci) is the cook who works with her. They're middle aged, of no great physical attractiveness, and both, having been hurt in their past relationships, are looking for something they can't exactly identify. Though the details may be a bit unique, the problems Frankie and Johnny face are of the everyday, unextraordinary variety. Who among us has not longed for acceptance, been afraid of facing the future alone, or not wanted all the details of our pasts to become known at inopportune times?
Tucci and Falco, through absolutely no fault of their own, cannot handle this most basic premise of the play. The two performers, good as they are at selling lines and emotions, simply cannot be ordinary because they are not ordinary. Falco comes across as sophisticated and almost refined, an intelligent, thoughtful woman, exactly the opposite of Frankie, while Tucci oozes self-confidence from every pore. It strains credibility, almost to the breaking point, that Falco's Frankie is uneducated or common, incapable of understanding all of the words that pepper Johnny's vocabulary, and Tucci, so slick and controlled, is equally difficult to believe as a divorced ex-convict with a difficult past of his own.
Thus fades the essential core of McNally's play, and with it, all hopes of this production making much sense. Tucci and Falco speak the words, are living in the moment, and spend every minute of the play's running time doing absolutely nothing wrong. The play just refuses to work because Tucci and Falco don't (or can't) understand these people.
Perhaps the most significant example is the building of the relationship itself. McNally brings Frankie and Johnny together through a sort of kismet, a cosmic kinship forged through two lives of hardship that coincided at certain key points. What holds them together is Johnny's unshakable belief that they can build something greater. Tucci's Johnny is intense, but not in the spiritual way required to put this across.
What holds them together in this production is anyone's guess; the nature of their relationship, particularly in the first act, is never clear here. Frankie seems to want little more from Johnny than a one-night stand, and Johnny spends almost the entire act attempting to convince her they can have more than that. His unabated persual of her is nearly threatening at times - Johnny truly seems like an unwanted presence in her life. Falco provides no sense of wanting or needing anything more, so the reason Johnny persists is not present. When they finally connect at the end of the first act, the moment is so unbelievable, the second act is rendered practically inert, an afterthought and not the final culmination of their relationship.
It's unlikely that this play could ever really succeed with Falco and Tucci, but Mantello gives it his all, providing fast-paced if not always sufficiently claustrophobic direction. John Lee Beatty's Manhattan apartment set is very well designed, but perhaps too nice to be believable as Frankie's Clinton dwelling. Brian MacDevitt's lighting, whether evoking the moon or the encroaching dawn, is a good complement for the ideas McNally expresses about how light lets one see - and be seen - more clearly.
However, MacDevitt's lights shine all too clearly on a production that is not at all well served by the actors performing it. Tucci and Falco belong on the New York stage, and one can only hope that, after their run here is over, they will not stay away long. Still, they are unable to provide the play what Frankie and Johnny themselves need so desperately: a purpose. With that missing, the beautiful music of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune cannot be effectively heard.