"Frankie & Johnny Are Married" is a bittersweet, wryly amusing "dramatic fiction" about producer-director Michael Pressman's true-life tribulations while trying to stage the play "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." Pressman had decided that, after a decade of marriage, he and his wife, actress Lisa Chess, should at last work together in the theater, where they both started.
The Pressmans, who live in a handsome home on a Venice canal with their young son, found themselves at a juncture all too common to entertainment industry couples. Pressman had found success as a writer, producer and director in television, most notably with "Chicago Hope," while Chess was still struggling to establish herself as an actress, at times auditioning for roles that she admits she never wanted and yet loses to actresses with bigger names. With "Chicago Hope" winding down, Pressman figured 2001 was a good time to realize the couple's long-deferred dream. Terrence McNally's play seemed a good choice for a modest small-theater production: two characters, a single set. Over his wife's admonitions never to use your own money, he invested a $15,000 tax return to stage the play in a small local theater.
As they proceed, Chess recalls that 10 years earlier in acting class she had played the hard-bitten waitress Frankie opposite a fellow student as short-order cook Johnny in a scene that had been well received, and she recommends him to her husband. The actor Pressman cast in his real-life production remains anonymous for reasons that swiftly become clear; it also should be made clear that Alan Rosenberg, who portrays Frankie for the movie, is not that actor. Rosenberg may be using his real name, but he is not playing himself, while Chess and Pressman are, in effect, playing themselves.
At first all goes well. Rosenberg has an earthy, blue-collar, middle-aged masculinity that seems ideal for Johnny, but his outsized ego and professional frustrations start short-circuiting his performance. In his own mind, he's right up there with Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman but never got his due, which has left him pretentious, angry and undisciplined. "I didn't become an actor to learn lines," he declares haughtily, explaining that subtext and spontaneity are what counts. Chess and Pressman soldier on, and while Chess is shaping up to be a wonderful Frankie, Rosenberg spells almost certain disaster.
As a writer, Pressman has thought a lot about the ordeal he and Chess endured and the bold decision he made in an attempt to save the day. Enough time had passed so that he was able to take a comic look at the venture, with humor setting off the anything-but-funny unexpected risks that Pressman takes with his family's financial security, not to mention the strain he places on his marriage. He affectionately satirizes the pressures of working in television and the vicissitudes of 99-seat theater, starting with an overconfident producer (Jillian Armenante) and a vulnerable novice stage manager (Morgan Nagler) — the actor Rosenberg plays is by no means the production's sole crisis.
Pressman, who brings an effortless flow and style to his film, further heightens its verisimilitude by casting a number of friends and associates as themselves, including Hector Elizondo, Mandy Patinkin, Kathy Baker and Barry Primus. Stephen Tobolowsky plays Murray, an amusingly obnoxious actor pal of Pressman. It is hard to imagine how Chess and Pressman could improve upon their performances as themselves, both in their professional and private lives. Rosenberg is not merely hilarious, for he is able to suggest that were his actor not so screwed up he could have been fine as Johnny.
Pressman reveals an astute sense of when to go for laughs and when to hold back.