Frankie and Johnny Is Cause For Rejoicing

Overcrowded with revivals of old plays, Broadway is beginning to look like one gigantic summer season on the straw-hat circuit. But when an old two-hander from 1987 ( Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune ) by a witty and accomplished writer (Terrence McNally) gets dusted off and revitalized by a sensitive director (Joe Mantello) with two of the smartest and most mesmerizing actors on the planet (Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci), it’s a cause for rejoicing. The applause at the Belasco is justified. Can this really be August?

You can forget about the disastrous movie version with the mismatched and miscast Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, and you can almost forget about the original stage production, which starred Kenneth Welsh and Kathy Bates (she was wonderful). Mr. Mantello’s vibrant, intelligent parsing of movement and words, and the inspired pairing of Ms. Falco and Mr. Tucci as the waitress and short-order cook trying to stretch a night of great sex into something more profound than the typical one-night stand, have turned Frankie and Johnny into a luminous and haunting experience. Both stars open the show in their birthday suits, but once the audience recovers from the initial shock, the contours of their naked bodies become more integral to their characters than all of the props on John Lee Beatty’s cluttered set. Johnny wants to drown in Frankie’s nudity, and all she does is talk about parakeets and meat loaf. He prolongs; she dodges. Honest and open-faced, charming but annoyingly persistent, Johnny’s a man who wants to find one meaningful relationship in life before it’s too late. Frankie’s a woman who doesn’t believe there is such a thing. They are both over 40, so they’ve been down this road before and know all the curves. Before the moon sets and the early sun coaxes them lazily back to bed, Frankie explores every detour. In a constant variety of shifting moods, Ms. Falco’s character shows the nerves, anxiety, trepidation, fear, longing and needs of a lonely woman whose toughness masks the scars-both emotional and physical-from an earlier relationship that turned from trust to abuse. In a series of genuinely affectionate bids for attention, Johnny shows he isn’t giving up or giving in; he even cooks up a Western omelette to delay his departure. Frankie plays rough to hide her heart, while Johnny plays the lovable clown to show his. Performing an intimate duet, they’re the only two people in a play that’s only occasionally interrupted by an all-night disc jockey who feeds their request for some proof that love exists beyond sex by playing “Clair de Lune.” After commanding rapt attention for more than two hours, Frankie and Johnny finally communicate playwright McNally’s belief that if two people hang in there long enough to lower their defenses and learn to trust, there is hope-provided the moon is shining through the fire escape at just the right number of degrees from the west, and Glenn Gould is playing Debussy.

Such a feat is impossible in this cynical age without the electricity of two very persuasive and powerful actors, and this production has its own built-in Con Edison plant. It’s not easy to be naked onstage for such a long time without a trace of self-consciousness, and the balding thug from so many gangster movies and the two-fisted Carmela Soprano may not be the two people you want to see trying it. But nothing can prepare you for the intimacy with which they sweep you away. Mr. Tucci has played so many crude lowlifes in his career that one doesn’t expect him to be so loose and playful. Rubbing his bald spot in frustration, checking the contents of his jockey shorts to see how everything is hanging, crossing his heart and quoting Shakespeare while striking effeminate ballet poses in jest, he is funny and manly in surprising ways. Ms. Falco may not be a pinup girl, but when Frankie strips away her caution and surrenders to instinct, she becomes as beautiful as she is brave. Two in a rumpled bed is a better alternative to a lonely Saturday night than a solitary beer and the late show, and when Ms. Falco’s wrinkled brow and pursed lips soften to the tender ecstasy of Mr. Tucci’s fingertips before they topple back into the sheets at the end, the audience is shouting “You go, girl!” before the curtain falls. If you want to see two killer actors at the top of their form, make this a must-see. Unlike their namesakes in the song that inspires the title of the play, Frankie doesn’t kill Johnny; he kills her-with faith, hope and love. Will it last? Who knows? The next day is Sunday; they can sleep late, while Mr. McNally contemplates a sequel.

Miguel Arteta’s Latest Gem

Of all the overpaid, overexposed people on the overpopulated, overrated TV show Friends , Jennifer Aniston might be the one most likely to move on to an important career on the big screen. She has a talent for choosing unusual roles, films with some weight, and directors with talent and vision. She was superb in Nicholas Hytner’s The Object of My Affection , and she makes an even more amazing transition from sitcom superficiality to painful reality in Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl , one of the summer’s most serendipitous discoveries.

Deglamorized to the point of woefulness, Ms. Aniston gives her all to play the kind of faceless, unremarkable woman you see behind the cosmetics counter in ugly discount stores across the barren landscape of America. This one is Retail Rodeo, a more sterile hick-town version of consumer angst than Kmart, in a boring, dead-end dot on the map called Wasteland, Tex. In Wasteland, life for a woman can seem like Death Row, and Justine is serving a long sentence with no chance of parole. Her job is suffocating; her childless marriage to a pot-smoking house painter named Phil (the marvelous, hamburger-faced John C. Reilly) has hit a concrete wall. After poor Justine is on her feet all day, she comes home at night to Phil the slob and his sidekick Bubba (the eternally weird Tim Blake Nelson), whose idea of fun is watching TV and telling unfunny pothead jokes. At 30, Justine is clearly in a rut-until she meets Tom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the nerdy new cashier, a dreamy-eyed 22-year-old who still lives at home with his parents and talks about suicide. Alienated and desperate to escape, Tom is not like everyone else in town. He’s serious, intense, an avid reader and a would-be writer who renames himself Holden after his literary hero from The Catcher in the Rye . A mutual rapport develops behind the vending machines, leading to an understandable carnal lust that temporarily releases Holden and Justine from Texas purgatory. But Justine is a “good girl,” and the anxiety she feels for seducing a younger boy accelerates when the brainless Bubba spots them in a motel and blackmails her into sharing her sexual favors with him. To save her marriage, Justine gives in, making two mistakes instead of one. On a downward spiral of jealousy and desperation, the hopelessly infatuated Holden robs the store for escape money. Suddenly, this “good girl” feels so guilty she can’t even go to Bible-study classes at the Church of the Nazarene. She’d like to run away with Holden, but first she has to help Phil with his sperm count at the fertility bank. At the end of her rope, the guileless housewife finds herself at a crossroads, like Tom Hanks at the end of Cast Away : No matter which way she turns, the consequences will change her life forever.

What a fresh and interesting take on the drama that lurks beneath the numbing façade of empty small-town American life. Tragic and humorous and beautifully restrained in its writing, direction and ensemble performances, The Good Girl is the latest work in an impressively developing oeuvre by a group of skilled and sensitive independent filmmakers worth keeping an eye on. I’ve admired the young director Miguel Arteta ever since I saw his inventive debut feature Star Maps , and his collaboration with writer Mike White on the critically acclaimed Chuck and Buck , in which Mr. White also starred, remains one of my favorite cult films. Mr. White has also written the screenplay for The Good Girl and plays the small but pivotal role of a born-again security guard, giving himself some of the film’s best lines. (On Halloween, he sniffs at a well-wisher, “I’m not a pagan, but thanks anyway.”) The films that Mr. White and Mr. Arteta make always focus on the disenfranchised, people who are unable to cope with the expected social behavior in conventional ways, or to satisfy their emotional needs to touch, connect and belong in a world that punishes what it least understands. A lot of the comedy in both Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl comes from the sheer honesty of unconventional people who risk being themselves at great sacrifice. This time the filmmakers have the added box-office allure of Jennifer Aniston, but she’s the one who gains the most from the collaboration. Successfully balancing a wide range of emotions, she proves that she can hold her own with the big guys, no matter how high the hurdles. The result is one of the most thoughtful and gratifying surprises of the summer.