Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts:Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts:
Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Desperation and depression are two states of mind that don't frequently provoke the tenderness Terrence McNally brings to Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Johnny, played by Stanley Tucci with verve in the revival that Joe Mantello has directed with matching verve, is the desperate one here. A cook at a greasy spoon, he's approaching 50 with little to show for it in the romance department. He thinks, however, that he's found the answer to his middle-age prayers in Frankie, with whom he takes the long night's journey into day during which the bittersweet comedy takes place.

Unfortunately for him, failed-actress-now-weary-waitress Frankie (Edie Falco) is the depressed one. She pads around her apartment -- which the always bang-on John Lee Beatty has designed to look like a fifth-floor walk-up in a West Side tenement -- doing everything she can to keep Johnny from learning anything about her damaged inner life. Instead, she wants him focused on the notion that steamy sex, which they energetically indulge in at play's beginning, is the level on which they should keep their relationship.

Oh, yes: In a season where more frontal nudity is promised (cf. Richard Greenberg's incoming Take Me Out), McNally uses the fact that his characters literally let it all hang out as a metaphor for how the two of them figuratively let their feelings hang out. In Frankie's case, she lets out -- in no uncertain terms, and repeatedly -- that feelings are not what she wants to let out. She continues on this angry agenda while making cold meatloaf sandwiches for Johnny and while, later in their combative duologue, Johnny throws together a Western omelet for her.

The finesse with which Tucci breaks eggs and dices peppers for that omelet, as if he'd spent years wielding knives in a Benihana branch, is only a small part of the command with which he takes over his role. In great physical trim, Tucci gallops on, in and out of Frankie's convertible bed. His hands are rarely still as he goes about making points he hopes will convince the object of his affectation that her big chance stands erect before her. Everything Tucci does and says seems entirely spontaneous, and that includes his leaping across the floor with enthusiasm to show Frankie his hernia scar. When he convinces her to part her robe so he can sit on the edge of the rumpled bed and gaze adoringly at her groin, the position and mien he assumes is part schoolboy, part Rodin's "Thinker." This is funny stuff, and touching as well. When Frankie hopes to put off the never-take-no-for-an-answer guy by blurting out that she can't have children, Tucci pauses just the proper amount of time before joyfully exclaiming, "We'll adopt."

Edie Falco, like Tucci, is becoming recognized and respected on stage, as well as in movies and television, as someone who can't hit a false note. No two characters she plays ever seem alike -- and, in particular, nothing of her Carmela Soprano is detectable in this scared, valiant, and quick-to-burn Frankie. Falco throws herself into the lovemaking, which, incidentally, elicits both sincere and nervous audience laughter; she also throws herself into Frankie's darker moods. But while everything Falco does connects, there are a few things she doesn't do and may not be able to do. Although Johnny insists he's in love with every aspect of Frankie's body, he also admits during a phone call to a classical music deejay that neither he or she are perfect specimens. But Falco is looking pretty good -- not as ludicrously lovely as Michelle Pfeiffer did in the movie adaptation, but not so unshapely that, the instant she rises from bed, much of her resistance to Johnny is implicitly understood. Which is the way it should be, ideally. (Those who saw Kathy Bates in the original production will likely agree with this criticism.)

Nevertheless, Falco and Tucci -- whose athletic appearance is somehow more acceptable in the circumstances -- send off enough sparks to enhance the two-hander McNally jotted down with such skill. He starts with a cute joke since, in the old torch song from which he purloins his title, Johnny was Frankie's man but he was doing her wrong. This time, Johnny's trying to do her right; and, as in all plays about the road to commitment, the one pursued wants none of it. Throughout his first act, McNally finds things for Frankie and Johnny to talk about that sound 100 percent natural, whether they're in or out of the robe and boxer shorts and little else that costumer Laura Bauer needed to supply. When Johnny finally figures out a way to have Frankie relent and allow him to stay over for what's left of the night, the victory makes sense.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Where McNally goes wrong is in his second act, which remains, as it was when the play was first produced, something of a replay of the first act. There's more of Frankie saying no-no and Johnny saying yes-yes and not much of what's required to make the work seem somewhat underwritten. Since the amorous twosome is stripped naked a couple of times, McNally might have stripped them a little more emotionally naked. Both Johnny and Frankie eventually confide the sadder episodes that have led them to the lovelorn situations in which they find themselves, but the revealed histories are cursory; they give the impression that McNally felt he'd better include them, but minimally. He also needs to more fully explain Johnny's conviction that Frankie, whom he's only known for a brief time, is definitely the prospective wife for him. Moreover, Johnny quotes Shakespeare amusingly and repeatedly; he mentions that he came by the knowledge on his own, yet, he doesn't have the air of an autodidact. Just how intelligent is Johnny -- and if that intelligence quotient is unusually high, how has he become a short order cook with so few aspirations beyond the griddle? (It seems that McNally did some short order cooking of his own.)

Incidentally, "clair de lune" translates as "moonlight," and McNally has fun with that as well. When Johnny calls the radio station to request the most beautiful music ever written, Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune" (courtesy of Scott Lehrer's smooth sound design) almost immediately floats onto the night air. That's just about the time when Johnny, buoyant with love, beckons Frankie to join him at the window and to bask (courtesy of Brian MacDevitt's lighting design) in the clair de lune. It's a lovely moment, though one wishes that McNally had shed a little more dramatist's light on the two of them.