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THEATER REVIEW : 'Icebergs' Plumbs Romance for Laughs


The weight of underwater plankton can cause an iceberg to tip on its side, revealing the greenery of the previously unseen microscopic organisms.

Or so we're told in "Green Icebergs" at South Coast Repertory. Just as the iceberg finally reveals its true colors, so do the people in Cecilia Fannon's captivating romantic comedy.

But not all of her characters are equally "green." Whereas the upheaval in these people's lives resuscitates two of them, two others turn their lives over without much of anything to show for it.

The action of Fannon's play occurs far from actual icebergs, in a seductive Tuscan town where two Orange County couples in their mid-30s, each married for nine years, are vacationing.

Justus (Jeff Allin) briefly mistakes Veronica (Nike Doukas) for his wife Beth (Annie LaRussa), while approaching her in a cafe. As they talk, ambivalent feelings about their marriages surface, kindled by Justus' book about Fra Filippo Lippi--the Renaissance priest and painter who defied convention by seducing and marrying a nun. Soon the Americans defy convention too.

The new coupling becomes painfully obvious when the four tourists--including Beth's husband Claude (Robert Curtis-Brown)--share a dinner table. That night, drastic measures are taken.

After intermission, more than a year has passed, and the four reunite at the same hotel and cafe but under very different circumstances. Although Fannon plays her most predictable narrative card in the first act, she saved enough surprises for the second to keep interest high.

While Fannon clearly values long-term compatibility over short-term passion, she never sounds moralistic. She also displays a fine-tuned sensitivity to the general importance of keeping private affairs private, of considering other people's feelings even if they're no longer part of your life. When some of her characters try to cash in on their personal stories, we get a whiff of the concern felt in Alan Ayckbourn's "Man of the Moment," a year ago in this theater.

This play isn't as funny as Ayckbourn's, but laughs abound, especially for Southern Californians who know, for example, what Souplantation is like. Only a few of the jokes stretch too far--most notably an absurd story of why Claude stopped playing tennis.

Fannon writes different kinds of engaging talk for different kinds of characters--Justus knows how to use big words, whereas Claude knows how to use brusque ones. She takes her biggest risk with an omniscient moderator--a waiter (Hal Landon Jr.) who anticipates every order, has a handy homily for every occasion, even counsels one of the characters in a scene away from the cafe. As an abstracted memory more than a real person, he could become insufferable, except that Fannon recognizes this and deftly takes advantage of it in her second act.

This play won South Coast's final California Playwrights Competition (Fannon is from Newport Beach). Unlike some of the previous winners, it got a mainstage production--and, as one expects from SCR, a classy one.

Director David Emmes directs a pitch-perfect cast. Doukas' throaty allure and Allin's loping charm heat up the first act, and LaRussa and Curtis-Brown carefully transform their characters' worst qualities into strengths in the second. Lighting designer Tom Ruzika got to play with romantic Italian light on Robert Brill's sun-washed set, and Ann Bruice's costumes help delineate the transformations of Beth and Justus in particular.

* "Green Icebergs," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays - Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays - Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 20. $26-$36. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Hal Landon Jr.: Waiter

Nike Doukas: Veronica

Robert Curtis-Brown: Claude

Annie LaRussa: Beth

Jeff Allin: Justus

By Cecilia Fannon. Directed by David Emmes. Sets by Robert Brill. Costumes by Ann Bruice. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Stage manager Julie Haber.

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