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The doing of the play is the thing

Michael Pressman makes a 'dramatic fiction' about his star-crossed 'Frankie and Johnny' production.

February 23, 2003|Jon Burlingame | Special to The Times

"There was, or will be, nothing scarier, or more risk-taking, than going on stage," notes Pressman. "Having weathered that experience, being onstage nonstop for two hours in a two-character piece, and succeeding, gave me the confidence to do the film acting." And, he points out, the film constantly references moments from "Frankie and Johnny," through rehearsals and ultimately playing the scenes before an audience.

"There was something about the play that, I said to Lisa, are mirrors for what you and I are going through: a struggling actress, issues of dealing with adoption, trying to prove how much one loves one another, the passion of that relationship."

By the end of the play, "it becomes this blur. Is that Frankie and Johnny or Michael and Lisa? We can't tell."

But wouldn't it have been easier to cast these parts with other actors?

"I think it would have been hard for two other people to do this," Chess says. "We're the best people for it because we experienced it.

"I had tried desperately to convince him not to do the play," she concedes. "Not as a director; I knew he'd be great as a director. And I knew that he had acted. But I said, you don't get on the stage for the first time in almost 30 years and do a two-character play where you don't leave the stage for two solid hours. But then he proved me wrong, and he was really good."

Pressman insists that the real risk was in doing the play, not in making the movie. "This is my world," he says, talking about staging, lighting, cameras and the minutiae of filmmaking. "The nightmare was the new world of the theater which, in terms of what could go wrong, I didn't know anything about."

Notes Kelley: "We all said, 'What's going on here? Most people take up fishing for their midlife crisis, and he's going to act.' "

Rosenberg, meanwhile, is billed as himself in the film but plays a very different Rosenberg from the usual nice-guy parts he does on TV: "a psychopathic, egomaniacal, stoned-out actor." It worried his manager just a little, he says.

No one seems to have a clue if this will play outside the insular show-biz world of L.A. But, Kelley says, "Michael is a very endearing and engaging person. When people watch him, he's this kind of underdog that you root for. If that comes across on screen, it could be delightful."

"Ultimately," says Pressman, "it's a success story, and I would love it to be viewed as such. At the end of the day, there's something very positive about working with your loved one."

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