Harry Potter!
Cinema Signal:

Three Plays
by Terrence McNally:
The Lisbon Traviata
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune
It's Only a Play

. "Frankie and Johnny Are Married"

You're a successful TV director with a little hole in your schedule. Your wife is a highly talented actress who is spending too much time as a homemaker and not enough exercising her dramatic gifts. Perhaps you've seen home movie projects like "Made Up," with Brooke Adams, a showcase for another out-of-work actress. In any case, the celebrity vanity sub-genre of low budget moviemaking has been established.

To put his own stamp on it, successful husband-writer-TV director Michael Pressman decides to do a play on stage and document the entire effort on film. His wife-star (a new hyphenate?), Lisa Chess is, at first, doubtful, but the desire to work overcomes any reticence she may have and she agrees to it. After all, with hubby Michael's directorial sense of story, a high enough standard of drama and character development can only be good for her. They agree on a loose adaptation of Terrence McNally's 1980s romantic comedy, "Frankie and Johnnie at the Claire de Lune" as the play. Lisa suggests another actor with a declining work schedule, old friend Alan Rosenberg (L.A. Law: The Movie, 2002-TV), A Mother's Fight for Justice, 2001-TV) for the part of Johnnie. Pressman agrees, excitement builds but, now, the ugly subject of financing a stage production and a documentary film comes up.

Equity-waver, with its limited seating (under 100) and no scale pay to worry about, is the perfect framework, and they secure a theatre and a dedicated but barely competent theatre manager Cynthia (Jillian Armenante). Lacking an "angel", Pressman decides he will have to spend his own money. Cynthia's first estimate of $15,000 floors the married pair, but they hesitantly accept the damage this amount will do to their life style (as if).

As rehearsals begin, two things happen. They discover that 15 G's is a pittance against the real costs (closer to 75 G's) and, that they have a major over-the-top if not over-the-hill prima donna of insecurity in co-star Rosenberg. When his histrionics become personal and unjustifiable attacks, Pressman cuts him loose. After much agonizing, Pressman, a not very romantic figure at 54 with no major acting credits (as far as I can tell), courageously (or foolishly) decides to take on the role. The rest of the movie plays like an improv on the anxieties of stage production as it might affect a marriage between creative partners.

What's also on the boards here is a peek behind industry doors. Pressman, in making a point of inclusiveness for his first writing effort, brings in his old and current boss, David E. Kelley, writer-producer-series creator (The Practice, Ally MacBeal, Chicago Hope, Mystery, Alaska) for a cameo appearance and a little advice. After all, Kelley, a man on the top of the TV industry mountain, is married to Michelle Pfeiffer, so he should know how one juggles married life and work. Pressman nails him as he's getting into his car at his studio parking space and, as old, dependable-director-chum, asks how he and Michelle handle the marriage-work conundrum. Kelley looks up at Pressman, meeting his querying eyes as his motorized car window goes up like a screen wipe. Safely enclosed within his private air-locked space, obscured behind the reflection of a sound stage, Kelley drives off. Pressman takes the non-answer knowingly while industry types who know who these people are and what influence they exert will have a chuckle. I did an LOL (computer talk for Laugh Out Loud).

This docu-drama accomplishes its primary mission, which is to showcase Lisa Chess' talent. It is fully on view and very impressive. Perhaps the slowdown in her career is due to getting buried at a younger age in Pressman's TV series ("Picket Fences," 1992). Since then she's managed to do a few guest appearances in Kelley TV-land ("Chicago Hope," 1994; "The Practice," 1997), and a few movies ("Separate Lives," 1995) but clearly her filmography shows no great momentum. She deserves better; she's the equal of anyone in her age category and type (Christine Lahti, Glenn Close?); and this film succeeds in raising hopes that the exposure will bring her casting offers. That's what showcases are for, aren't they?

Secondarily, this little vanity production becomes much more as a behind the scenes expose'--not of anything sordid--but of the mind and world of a legitimate, working, industry writer-director who shares with us his bedroom, his industry bosses, the mechanics of his professional techniques and the much more difficult to express, somewhat courageous exposure of personal relationship issues. He keeps it light and playful, but it's also a hint of this couple's embrace of art and marriage.

"Frankie and Johnny are Married" raises the bar a notch for self-promotional, low budget ventures with its contrived but capable dramatic structure but there's just a bit of the infomercial about it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess
husband and wife acting team
as Johnny and Frankie and as themselves

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