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THEATER REVIEW

Wary and watchful in the 'Clair de Lune'

International City Theatre poignantly revisits a story about two lonely people.

September 03, 2008|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

The first sounds we hear at the beginning of "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" are the dulcet patterns of Glenn Gould playing Bach and the raucous moans of a couple reaching orgasm. That dichotomy between the graceful and the gritty suffuses Terrence McNally's romantic comedy-drama. Its enthralling revival at International City Theatre in Long Beach addresses each contradiction to the last degree of bittersweet humor.

Not that Frankie (Libby West) and Johnny (Thomas Fiscella) are lovers, far from it. Middle-aged employees at the same dive in New York City, this waitress and short-order cook have just wound up their first date. On the face of things, the odds aren't good for a second one.

Sarcastic and guarded, Frankie just wants her swain to put his pants on and vamoose. Yet garrulous Johnny is smitten, as he tells Frankie, though his flowery phrases scarcely dissuade her from thinking him a jerk. As she tells him, "You just don't decide to fall in love with people out of the blue."

Johnny, however, is nothing if not persistent and, for all his deeply ingrained lack of tact, perceptive. "Pretend we're the only two people in the world," he says, and his assertion gets under her skin as much as the Debussy piece that gives the play its title. Isn't the chance to be more than two isolated souls merely bumping into bodies worth taking?

McNally certainly thinks so, and "Frankie and Johnny," which premiered in 1987 at the Manhattan Theatre Club with Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh, has aged better than most such examinations. Although the references and rhythm of Frankie and Johnny's banter can feel over-glib, they are very funny, and the pair's personal revelations retain their unforced poignancy.

Under director Todd Nielsen's adroit eye, West and Fiscella play these unlikely partners for all they're worth. Fiscella's boundless energy and emotional acumen are enormously appealing, if somewhat too well-spoken. He has a fluid affinity with West, whose spot-on timing and hairpin turns of feeling remind us anew of her remarkable talent.

Perhaps designer Stephen Gifford's fine Hell's Kitchen apartment set could be a shade grimier, and though Nielsen downplays the nudity of the opening, it's unfair that Johnny wears underwear beneath the sheets and Frankie doesn't. Still, these quibbles are ultimately as irrelevant as Chris Kittrell's lighting and sound designs are elegant. Only hard-hearted cynics could remain detached in the face of such a beautifully rendered moonlit reverie.

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"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 21. $32 to $42. (562) 436-4610. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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