STAGE REVIEW : S.D. Gaslamp Returns With Triumph : Premiere of Terrence McNally's 'Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune' marks a fresh look and spirit for the ailing troupe.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company has reopened with a virile roar that shook the rafters of the sedate Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre.

Audience surprise mingled with an appreciation that grew to a standing ovation by the end of the company's presentation of the San Diego premiere of "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

Could this be the same company that closed in May with a starchy performance of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit"? A show that went begging for audiences?

Where does Terrence McNally's earthy, funny, sexually charged love story fit into the proper, buttoned-up look that pigeonholed the theater in its 10th anniversary year?

"Did you know there was nudity in this play?" went the hushed chatter in the ladies room during intermission. "I mean, it doesn't bother me, but I never guessed. . . ."

It's not that there is anything radical or gratuitous in Will Roberson's staging of what may well be McNally's most popular play to date. All Roberson did--and this is no mean "all"--is understand that this is a love story between two working class stiffs--a short-order cook and a waitress, neither of them young or beauties--who are agonizing over whether they dare to extend a one-night stand into a relationship.

Actually it is the waitress, Frankie (Pam Grier), who does the agonizing. Johnny (William Anton) already knows he has found the woman he wants to marry and have children with.

Neither the sexual act that starts the play nor the partial nudity that follows is done for titillation. McNally's message is that love by moonlight is easy. The real test of the heart is to be able to look at your imperfect partner when he or she is brushing his or her teeth, without the prettification of clothes and makeup and mystery, and to know even then that this is the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.

Essential to the success of this witty and loving valentine--a runaway hit since its Manhattan Theatre Club debut in 1987--is the casting.

Happily, the two actors making their Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company debuts--Grier and Anton--have a terrific chemistry between them.

Anton, a familiar face at both the Old Globe and San Diego Repertory theaters, sizzles in what may be his best role in town to date.

It is up to Anton, as Johnny, to keep this love story moving against Frankie's resistance. He makes you believe in Johnny's passion for Frankie and for life, whether he is cutting up, or entreating her to look at and listen to him as deeply as he is looking at and listening to her. He makes you understand that he is a man who has hope, not because he doesn't know that his once-broken heart can be broken again, but because he believes in the necessity of love in spite of everything.

Grier, best known for her film roles, occasionally appears a bit frozen on stage. But she melts and charms at crucial moments, while Anton keeps on cooking--figuratively as well as sometimes literally.

For example, Frankie just can't resist asking the cook to whip up a hot sandwich just for her. Given the nature of the resistant character Grier plays, even her stiffness works, at times, to advantage.

This is also the first interracial casting of the play--Anton is white and Grier is black. It turns out that this choice doesn't affect the show a bit.

Given the care taken with the principal elements of the show, it does come as some surprise that the technical support is not up to snuff.

The set by Jane Hinson is appropriately bare but unnecessarily bland, and it gives little opportunity for Brenda Berry's quiet lighting to be more than adequate.

The sound by J.D. Steyers, who doubles as a radio announcer, is more muffled than it should be. The costumes by Jeanne Reith--mostly bathrobes and boxer shorts--are fine.

But, where the Gaslamp has done exceedingly well is in its choice of play, director and stars--all new to the company.

If this augurs an open-door policy that will continue to bring fresh, challenging talent in what used to seem a rather tepid, if not suffocating atmosphere, it is a welcome sign indeed.

Since the theater's close in May, the artistic leadership at the Gaslamp has promised that a change of direction was on its way. If these are the winds of change, blow on.

"FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE"

By Terrence McNally. Director is Will Roberson. Set by Jane Hinson. Costumes by Jeanne Reith. Sound by J.D. Steyers. Lighting by Brenda Berry. Stage manager is Sandra Halloran. With Pam Grier and William Anton. At 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday with Sunday matinees at 2 through Jan. 6. At 444 Fourth Ave., San Diego, 234-9583.

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