Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune poses some interesting existential questions

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BY VICKI PARIS GOODMAN
Arts and Entertainment Editor

Wasn’t there an old song about a Frankie and Johnny who were lovers? And in that song didn’t Frankie murder Johnny for his infidelity? I figured Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune would at least loosely follow the song’s tragic tale of jealousy and love gone wrong. But instead it takes a much different turn, one far less physically destructive but arguably just as riveting.
Veteran playwright Terrence McNally does draw on the “legendary” couple of song to the extent that his two characters are modern-day losers– Frankie, a diner waitress, and Johnny, a short-order cook at the same diner. Frankie’s dreams of love and success have been all but shelved, relegated to distant memory and a faint cynicism. Johnny, on the other hand, possesses only the reasonable desires of an ordinary man, but they continue to escape his grasp.
It is the elusive quality of Johnny’s longing for love and connection, paired with middle age and the realization that time is running out, that powerfully propels this sometimes disturbing drama.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune depicts the couple’s first date, in which they wind up at Frankie’s cramped apartment engaged in a session of impassioned lovemaking. As the evening progresses into late night, with Johnny talking on incessantly (we’ve all known the type), it is not surprising when Frankie finally decides it is time for Johnny to leave. But he won’t leave, leading to some tense, even creepy, moments.
The play builds slowly, almost painfully so in places. But McNally’s audience is called upon to exercise patience, as the nuances in Johnny’s motivations require time and maneuvering to thoroughly play out and be understood.
The attractive but resigned Frankie seems so real, almost likable, as portrayed by actess Libby West. Enough vulnerability pokes through the character’s jagged exterior to make her accessible to an audience that might not wholly identify with her decidedly white trash circumstances.
Thomas Fiscella gives the complex role of Johnny all of the passion, desperation and immaturity necessary to drive the play’s emotional highs and lows. Yet his character seems somehow out of Frankie’s league, classier and more knowing, in spite of his excesses. Is this a casting or directorial miscue? It’s hard to say, as the two characters certainly possess an undeniable chemistry.
Todd Nielsen directs the dynamic cast of West and Fiscella on Stephen Gifford’s remarkable set. Frankie’s digs are everything shabby and not too chic, and a brilliant lighting effect creates the illusion of skyscrapers in the distance to remind us of the strictly urban setting.
Johnny calls a no-request late night radio station to request “beautiful music” to make love by, and the intrigued DJ complies with Debussy’s gorgeous “Clair de Lune.” Hence the title’s reference.
I’ve always felt that there are two types of people– those who choose, and are able, to accept their lot in life, and others who simply cannot, even though they might, in fact, want to. For the latter type, giving up the crusade amounts to existing in constant fear and anxiety. So for me, McNally’s play asks a compelling question: Who is the luckier one– she who accepts, or he who must strive, even out of sheer desperation, for more? The answer isn’t obvious, but the question alone makes the play worth the price of admission.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune continues at International City Theatre in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, located at 300 E. Ocean Blvd., through September 21. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 and $37 on Thursdays; $37 and $42 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call (562) 436-4610 for information and reservations or visit ICT’s website at http://www.ictlongbeach.org.

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