Monday, May 5, 2014

Swimming in the Shallows, convergence-continuum

(Foreground: Monica Zach as Donna, left, and Linda Sekanic as Carla Carla; Background: Zac Hudak as Nick, left and Amy Bistok Bunce as Barb)

Oh no! Senator Rick Santorum’s twisted fever dream of the ultimate effects of gay sex have come true! But it’s worse! Santorum only imagined same sex coupling leading to “man-on-dog” relationships. But in Swimming in the Shallows, now at convergence-continuum, it is man-on-shark sex that is at issue.

And as it turns out, that cross-species dynamic is the most interesting part of a production that disappoints at almost every level. It’s not that playwright Adam Bock can’t write, it’s that he relies on too many gimmicks and familiar comedy crutches to give his largely gay-themed play much punch. And this production fails to generate enough of its own energy to compensate for the script’s shortcomings.

Five friends are swirling in the midst of various interpersonal problems. Barb and Bob are a middle-aged couple dealing with Barb’s midlife crisis: She feels the need to divest herself of possessions, like a Buddhist who only retains six worldly items. Hubby Bob, meanwhile, likes buying new stuff and keeping what he’s got, so Barb wants to split.

Their lesbian friends Carla Carla and Donna are thinking about a commitment ceremony, but Donna’s chain smoking is an obstacle for her honey. Even though the script is only 15 years old, the idea of building a conflict around smoking feels decades old and not particularly compelling.

The fifth wheel on this clown car is Nick, a gay man who impulsively has sex on the first date with most of the guys he meets, then sinks into depression when they don’t love him back. This is a stereotype construct that feels tired and shopworn, and even though Bock’s occasionally witty banter helps a bit, it’s a long slog.

The only bright spot is when amorous Nick falls for a Mako shark at the aquarium where Donna works. And the scenes where shark and man interact, both pulsing with deep desires, are both amusing and startling.

Trouble is, nothing else comes close to those moments, in a production where the actors are called upon to breathe life and a touch of manic weirdness into the farcical proceedings. Instead, Linda Sekanic and Monica Zach, as the lovebirds Carla Carla and Donna, never develop unique or interesting characters. They read their lines but never take any chances, coming across as fairly bland young women who complain a lot.

Amy Bistok Bunce has been very good in other roles at con-con, but she feels a bit restricted in this one, and the fine actor Robert Branch as her husband Bob seems similarly constrained.

In the role of Nick, the often-superb Zac Hudak is almost completely disconnected here. Relying on a lot of rapid-fire facial calisthenics, his Nick seems more distracted than driven. Ryan Edlinger, with a fin mounted on his back, “swims” smoothly but not very sexily as the Shark.

Aside from not finding a way to help her cast develop more arresting characters, director Lisa L. Wiley has staged the play (along with set designers Clyde Simon and Cory Molner) on perhaps the least interesting set ever seen at con-con. For a company that’s usually masterful at finding ways to reimagine their tiny playing space, this production’s long, flat set (the world as aquarium?) is a surprising bore.

Filled with a torrent of random, not terribly funny small talk and wink-wink title slides meant to prop up the comedy (“How to Cook a Rabbit,” “How to Quit Smoking”), Shallows feels out of its depth from start to finish.

Swimming in the Shallows
Through May 24, produced by convergence continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074.

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