Watching a performance by Edie Falco is a little like consulting with a world-class surgeon: You just know that you are in supremely skilled hands. Falco is one of those great pretenders who can seduce with the sheer weight of emotional honesty. Feeling is not merely communicated in a gesture or a glance. It seems to radiate from her continuously.
Her Carmela Soprano is, of course, one of the continuing marvels of "The Sopranos," the landmark series beginning its fourth season next month on HBO. (Has there been a recent interlude of television drama as breathtakingly real as the one in the first season in which Carmela tells off a local priest who was coming on to her?) Well, if that level of authenticity is what you're after on a stage, Falco is supplying it at the Belasco Theatre, as the lonely, commitment-averse waitress of Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."
Falco's powerhouse turn is the chief reason to attend the revival of this 1987 two-hander, in which she stars with Stanley Tucci. But surprisingly, it's not the only major theater event of the late summer. "Frankie and Johnny," in fact, is just one of several big shows to open at a time of year when the New York theater traditionally succumbs to torpor and humidity and all but switches off its creative engines.
Suddenly, however, August is hot. Just on the strength of "Hairspray" -- a rollicking Candygram of a musical that already has racked up a $15 million advance -- the month would be significant. Add to that the strongly acted McNally play and the opening of "Harlem Song," George C. Wolfe's stylish but scattered musical tribute to Harlem at the renowned Apollo Theater, as well as a new (if oddly cheesy) version of Rodgers and Hart's "The Boys From Syracuse" at the Roundabout, and the calendar seems positively packed.
One explanation for the August bustle is sensitivity over Sept. 11. Press agents and producers say that many in the theater world were nervous about opening a production too close to the anniversary, and so chose dates well in advance. There is also a belief that opening at an uncluttered time of year can mean a lot more publicity for a well-received show. That proved true several years back for Nicky Silver's "The Food Chain," an off-Broadway comedy, originally staged at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, that ran a full season after opening in August to good reviews and a hefty helping of newspaper coverage.
An in-demand television actor is another sure way to attract audiences. In Falco's case, though, it's craftsmanship, not Nielsen points, that dictates that attention must be paid. Her beautifully embroidered Frankie is destined to be remembered long after the show goes dark in December.
McNally's play, originally produced off-Broadway with Kenneth Welsh and Kathy Bates, takes place over the course of a night of sex and longing in Frankie's dingy Hell's Kitchen apartment, where she has had a one-night stand with Tucci's Johnny, a short-order cook. Johnny is as eager for a deeper relationship as Frankie is wary of one: "Everything I want is in this room," he tells her, stunning her with a marriage proposal.
It's clear that despite common disappointments and shared backgrounds, the romantic harmony, at least at first, is all in Johnny's head. The pleasure is in watching Frankie as she sorts out her reactions to him, and in this regard Tucci is not always helpful. His smirking Johnny is too much the snake-oil salesman to be a serious match for Frankie. Much has been made of his rugged physique -- he looks more like a personal trainer than a guy who slings hash -- but it's an overly mannered performance that undermines the portrayal.
The disparity in acting styles throws off some of the poignant moments; one has to believe that these two beings on the margins of life fall into step as inevitably as succeeding notes on a page of "Clair de Lune." Still, with her uncanny serenity Falco might make any acting partner self-conscious. Her Frankie is the portrait of a damaged woman in the grip of a sadness we desperately want to lift.
Eighty blocks to the north, on Harlem's 125th Street, history is being made by a director consumed with history. George C. Wolfe, the producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater, has reimagined the Apollo as a Broadway outpost with "Harlem Song," a multimedia exploration of the last 100 years of a place considered the epicenter of black culture in America.
Reassembling much of the team that brought "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" to Broadway, Wolfe has composed a kind of docu-musical that in its best moments thrillingly conjures Harlem institutions and events, like the Cotton Club and Depression rent parties. The show proceeds chronologically, with numbers about the Harlem Renaissance and the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight interspersed with interviews with old Harlemites, projected on movable screens above the actors.
It's a huge topic for a musical; 100 turbulent years may be too broad a canvas for a 90-minute show. Without a strong, cohesive narrative, "Harlem Song" often tends to oversimplify complex events. The Harlem literati of the 1920s dance to a silly rag, and a gospel-inflected production number appears to have been inserted simply to facilitate an inspirational ending. Songs from the Cotton Club era fare better: The bluesy "For Sale" gets a hilarious payoff thanks to the gifted B.J. Crosby, and Duke Ellington's elegant "Drop Me Off in Harlem" is appropriately sultry in Rosa Curry's rendition.
Despite some disappointing sequences, the show still makes an intriguing centerpiece for a day of sightseeing in a part of Manhattan long overlooked by much of the rest of the borough. And pay close attention to those videos: In one funny vignette, a Harlem barber tells his version of the story of the birth of the Afro.
Another musical that opened this month, Scott Ellis's revival of "The Boys From Syracuse," plays, alas, like an afternoon stuck in traffic. While several Rodgers and Hart standards, such as "Falling in Love With Love" and "This Can't Be Love," land merrily on the ear, the eyes are at a distinct disadvantage.
The sets and costumes, by the normally reliable Thomas Lynch and Martin Pakledinaz, look as if they were borrowed from the old "Merv Griffin Show," and a cast headed by Tom Hewitt, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien as two pairs of clueless twins does not excavate much wit from the book, even one revised by the likes of Nicky Silver. It all feels more like summer stock than this vibrant summer in the city.
For ticket information on "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," call 800-432-7250; "Harlem Song," 800-992-3604; "The Boys From Syracuse," 212-719-1300.