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Absurd Delight

Invisible Theatre finds the right balance in its pleasant production of the dysfunctional 'Swimming in the Shallows'

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A play titled Swimming in the Shallows invites easy jokes about its lack of substance. And, indeed, Adam Bock's work of that name, currently running at Invisible Theatre, does emphasize cleverness over content. Nevertheless, while Swimming in the Shallows isn't very deep, the writing is splashy, the production is confident, and it all makes for a pleasant way to spend 75 minutes in the theater.

It's the shallowness of contemporary relationships that the title refers to, and some people's desire to find more in their interactions. What Bock's characters desire, however, isn't necessarily what they really need.

Consider Barb, a middle-age wife who resolves to cast off her belongings when she hears of the austere lifestyles of Buddhist monks in Thailand. (Bock loves plausible but silly little details, like Buddhist monks situated specifically in Thailand.) Supposedly, these men get along just fine with only eight possessions each. True, as one character posits, they probably end up borrowing a lot of stuff, but Barb is drawn to the idea of unburdening her life. Barb doesn't quite get it, but it doesn't take long for us to figure out that what she really wants to unload at the yard sale is her husband.

Meanwhile, Barb's nice lesbian friends Donna and Carla Carla are talking about getting married--this story is set, after all, in progressive Rhode Island, whose succinct state motto is the optimistic but noncommittal "Hope." But Carla Carla hesitates, and Donna figures it's because Carla Carla objects to her smoking. So Donna tries to kick the habit, but the harder she tries, the more she ends up sneaking cigarettes.

Then there's their pal Nick, with a long history of very short affairs with other men. Barb and Donna lecture him on the difference between infatuation and true love, and Donna tries to set him up with blind dates who have the potential for long-term relationships. Turns out that Nick ultimately falls for a hunky, brooding shark at the local aquarium. Assuming Nick can even get a date with the shark, will he be able to develop a meaningful relationship instead of falling into bed with it at the first opportunity? This gives new meaning to the concept of "jumping the shark."

Writer Bock has an engaging sense of the absurd that's light enough not to drag the play down into pretentious symbolism. Oh, sure, it's obvious what the shark represents: Christopher Johnson glides across the stage dressed in black leather (and a fin), his mind focused exclusively on the moment. (His lines in the aquarium consist of "Swim, swim, swim, swim--glass--watch out for the glass--swim, swim, swim.") He's the appealingly dangerous type you'll find lurking in any gay bar. But in this play, he's also a shark. Literally.

And the play isn't all silliness. Nick and the shark have a touching, quiet moment together on the beach, when the shark confesses his loneliness and his suppressed desires (mainly having to do with chomping swimmers, but you know what this is really about).

This scene provides some needed relief from the script's rapid-fire dialogue and quick scene changes, particularly Barb's brisk patter (which Molly McKasson delivers as if it's the most natural dialogue in the world). Bock doesn't give us a chance to get bored; he expedites the action and wraps everything up in about 75 minutes. Just right for this sort of play.

Directed with swift assurance by Joy Hawkins, the cast presents this as much more than an absurdist stunt. McKasson's ease with her character is matched by the other actors. Sarah MacMillan as Donna and Victoria McGee as Carla Carla keep the energy up and the stakes high without yelling at each other. William Hubbard's Nick is likable and not stupid, regardless of how superficial his character can sometimes be. Jeffrey Scotland does well as Barb's husband, although it's not a very substantial role. And Christopher Johnson is suitably aloof, dark and sexily dangerous as the shark.

Refreshingly, most of this cast (with the necessary exception of Johnson) ranges from one end to the other of middle age. It's nice to see characters whose confusion about life and love can't be blamed merely on immaturity.

The actors are well supported by the various production elements, especially Franklin Calsbeek Jr.'s vivid but not dizzying lighting design, and James Blair's set, all angled walls with empty picture frames hung akimbo.

Ultimately, Invisible Theatre's absurdist but not self-conscious Swimming in the Shallows finds just the right depth.

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