How can a husband and wife save their marriage and boost their career satisfaction to boot? Do a play together, according to Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess. And then make a movie about the experience.
That's how the Jewish couple came to play themselves in the film, "Frankie and Johnny Are Married," based on their misadventures staging "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" in 2001.
Their ruefully smart film mixes fact and fiction in the manner of recent reality-bending flicks such as "Adaptation" and "American Splendor."
Pressman, a TV director and Emmy-winning co-executive producer ("Picket Fences"), wrote, directed and financed the movie.
"Most people said, 'You're crazy,'" "Fences" creator David E. Kelley, who made a cameo appearance in the film, told the Los Angeles Times in 2003.
"We broke cardinal rules of show business," he said. "Never work together, and never put your own money into a project."
Why did he and Chess sink $75,000 into the play alone? They were dealing with a complicated time in their marriage several years ago, he said. They'd met at a performing arts benefit back in 1990, and had nurtured dreams of working together in the theater, but by 2000 they were, well, stagnating. Lisa was still a struggling actress, who bristled when people asked why her TV producer husband didn't get her a job (she wanted to succeed on her own).
And Pressman was working around the clock in television, soothing actors prone to temper tantrums and "sublimating my own creative desires to take care of others."
As Chess told him one day in 2000: "I'm frustrated and unhappy, and you're successful and distracted."
In order to revitalize their relationship, they vowed to return to their dream of working together in the theater. They decided he would direct her in a Los Angeles equity waiver production of Terrence McNally's 1987 play, "Frankie and Johnny," a romantic comedy about two lost, middle-aged people risking everything for romance.
While sitting side by side on a leather couch in Pressman's airy Venice office recently, the slender and neatly dressed Chess exhibited a Frankie-like reserve. Pressman, who was open and affable, demonstrated a Johnny-ish garrulousness.
Chess said she identified with Frankie, a jaded waitress who once dreamed of becoming an actress. Pressman described certain parallels between himself and Johnny, a poetic short-order cook whose intense wooing flatters and at times overwhelms Frankie.
"There's something similar in tone, albeit in a very different way, to some aspects of my relationship with Lisa," he said. "It's me constantly trying to be the caretaker, to make things right, which can sometimes feel smothering to the other person."
Before long, however, it was the planned production that was overwhelming Pressman and Chess. The actor hired to play Johnny left the production two weeks before opening night.
"Our understudy was unable to proceed, which led me to cancel the show and forfeit our investment," Pressman said. (The actor depicted in the movie is a completely fictionalized character.)
Lisa recalled that she was "devastated" by the turn of events -- but that her husband surprised her with a novel suggestion several months later. The couple could reschedule the production, he said, if Pressman himself stepped in to play Johnny. It wasn't such a bizarre idea; the son of a Broadway director, he had begun his career as an actor at 12, performing in shows such as "The World of Sholom Aleichem" with famed Yiddish theater actor Jacob Ben-Ami. In lieu of his bar mitzvah, Pressman had traveled to Florida to appear in a production of "A Thousand Clowns."
Chess replied that he was crazy -- he hadn't been onstage in 27 years -- but he wore her down with Johnny-like persistence and the show opened to good reviews at Hollywood's Tamarind Theatre in July 2001.
"I was terrified on opening night, but Lisa helped me get through it, and performing together proved to be a wonderful experience," he said. "It awakened a new kind of respect we had for each other and in a way we fell in love again, along with Frankie and Johnny."
They enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to make a movie about it; given Pressman's TV and movie background ("Frankie" is his ninth film), the production proved smooth sailing compared to the play.
So does the couple have advice for others who want to follow their unusual -- some would say, risky -- prescription for rekindling romance?
"Do not rely on any of the dynamics that exist in the marriage to carry over into the working relationship," Pressman said. "Redefine the relationship and make it new."
The movie opens May 26 in Los Angeles.