Since learning that Buddhist monks own only eight possessions apiece, Barb (Bess Welden) has thrown her domestic life into a spiritual purging of household appliances, much to the bewilderment of her husband Bob (Christopher Holt). Meanwhile, Barb's friends Donna (Janice Gardner) and Carla Carla (Janice O'Rourke) have been regularly announcing and then calling off their marriage. Finally, serial one-night-stander Nick (Peter Brown) has fallen in love with a shark. Life is in upheaval for these four friends, and all of them will need to go deep to make sense of things in Swimming in the Shallows, a comedy with a touch of the surreal, by Adam Bock. Daniel Burson directs a sassy yet poignant production for the Dramatic Repertory Company, at the Portland Stage Studio Theater.
The world of Barb, Donna, Carla Carla, and Nick is screwball, and their crises are paced in a briskly episodic style that's sustained deftly by Burson and his cast: Characters are frequently in motion, crossing on and off between homes, yard sales, smoking-cessation classes, and the aquarium; they often shout lines from offstage or en route. Time often leaps ahead with a beep, a beat, a step downstage, or a new chapter title (e.g., "How to Get a Man") projected onto a big, blue, filmy screen/tank that dominates an otherwise sparse set. Everyone dreams in big video. There is a lot of dancing.
The friends converse with the laconic, minutiae-laden, abbreviated banter of smart, compassionate neurotics. Barb, whom Welden gives an intense but sympathetic resolve, rattles off the far more than eight things in her kitchen. Donna and Nick, both entertainingly salty, wry, and self-conscious in Gardner's and Brown's hands, rattle off the names of whom the other's slept with. Nick and Carla Carla entertain arguments over a porcelain yodeling Heidi; Carla Carla and Donna argue over Texan catering. They self-narrate. Barb delivers a monologue, tongue half in-cheek and with soaring musical accompaniment, about her pastoral fantasy of the dump. And how these friends love each other, stroking and laying heads platonically on laps. As everyone deals with the diverse difficulties of vulnerability and risk, their rapport is affectionate, funny, and ultimately moving.
That's because for all their banter, for all their skimming through the jocular verbal shallows, the script and cast also deepen. Watch the normally verbose Barb flail into broken phrases when she breaks up with Bob. Watch the rejected Bob, played by Holt with enormous subtlety and sensitivity, as the pain behind his smile and meaningless words quietly threatens to drown him. Watch Nick's soft, almost childlike awkwardness and candor as he falls for the shark.
Oh, and that shark? A simply jaw-dropping Matthew Delamater, who's worth the price of admission several times over. The fluid, arrogant grace; the carnivorously erotic eyes flicking over Nick's face, the incredible dance-floor sharking? Nick would be a fool not to go into that water. ^
SWIMMING IN THE SHALLOWS | by Adam Bock | Directed by Daniel Burson | Produced by Dramatic Repertory Company | at the Portland Stage Studio Theater | through April 28 | dramaticrep.org