Adam Bock was still an unknown playwright in February 2003, when Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company took a risk by slating his Swimming in the Shallows two years before its award-winning debut in New York City. Since then his work has been produced everywhere, he’s won an Obie and further awards, and his name is commonly cited with such wits as Sarah Rule (The Clean House), Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation) and David Henry Hwang (Chinglish).
Now that the Kitchen is nearing a 25th anniversary and thinking about commemorating happy successes, Swimming is back with two of the same cast members and the same director. Except for one or two dated references, like smoking sections in restaurants, the show feels fresher than it did the first time around.
All the issues in Swimming, like love, commitment, reckless choices and consumerism, are real, but Bock kicks aside conventions to portray them. In the opening scene two women, the married Barb (Karina Arroyave) and the single Carla Carla (Lesley Gurule), are talking about a series of unrelated topics, like birthdays and getting married. We gradually realize that Barb is not stumbling on her pal’s name. It really is the double-decker “Carla Carla.” We are never told how this anomaly should have cropped up, and soon we shrug off any question of its significance. If we can accept this, why shouldn’t we accept a talking shark?
It’s tempting to class Swimming in the Shallows as “magical realism,“ that fashionable term from Latin America, but Bock is more fundamental. He’s anti-realistic, not unlike centuries of folk tales with talking trees and dancing fiddles. Only his creations have more wit. Before the Shark (Peterson Townsend) found his current slot at an aquarium in Rhode Island, he used to sell Avon.
Dancing from realism into anti-realism is Bock’s ability to talk about two themes at one time, when one is a distraction and the other is the motive. Similar approaches are found in Harold Pinter plays, Quentin Tarantino movies and Stephen Sondheim lyrics, only Bock is more frolicsome, teasing rather than challenging. We’re never left behind in knowing what’s happening. The spritz comes when one displaces the other.
Diminutive Barb wants to get shed of her burdensome possessions, right after Carla Carla gives her a hideous piece of orange junk as a wedding present. She wants to emulate those Buddhist monks who limit themselves to owning eight things; having so much stuff makes her feel “heavy.” She sells what she can in a yard sale at bargain prices, but her much-maligned husband Bob (Dean Robinson) takes the profits to buy even more. In a showoff verbal riff that sounds like a mix of Tom Stoppard and Abbott and Costello, Barb and Bob banter brutally about the best buy on a Buick.
Unobtrusively, we notice that the only couple is heterosexual. Carla Carla’s thoughts about marriage are with the often-uniformed Donna (Lena Kaminsky) but she can’t stand her smoking. Donna has heard this message before but likes to smoke. In another of Bock’s coruscating set pieces, Donna debates obsessions and behavior over a week with Nick (Karl Gregory), who has his own dangerous habits. Looking for love in all the wrong places, he’s been hooking up repeatedly and just as quickly dropped. Maybe he could have something more lasting with a strong guy of constant character, like a shark.
As conspicuously verbal as Swimming in the Shallows might be, director Rachel Lampert was a choreographer first. The show is almost as much a dance display as it is wordplay, most notably in the scene where Nick dreams that the Shark is coming to make love to him. Karl Gregory as Nick is one of two repeats from the 2003 production (Dean Robinson’s Bob is the other), and his lissome vitality has not shrunk in a dozen years. His gift for desperate absurdity is put to good use. It’s understandable that he cites Nick as one of his big successes.
Lampert’s hand also guides Peterson Townsend is proving to us that he is indeed a shark. He has only a black fin on his back. Everything else is in the smooth, self-confident, threatening walk.
Swimming in the Shallows concludes with performances on Wednesday, May 13, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, May 14, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 17, 4 p.m., at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, 417 W. State St. Call (607) 272-0403 for information.
Feature Photo: Lena Kaminsky and Karl Gregory in Kitchen Theatre’s Swimming in the Shallows. Dave Burbank photo