Truth be told, playwright Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows - currently being produced by New Ground Theatre - is a bit of a mess. If, however, a show is fortunate enough to feature Pat Flaherty and Susan Perrin-Sallak as a bickering married couple, Eddie Staver III performing an underwater pas de deux in scuba gear, and a tuxedo-clad shark dancing the Macarena, it doesn't much matter if the script falls apart.
Besides which, this vaguely metaphorical, seriously silly one-act is too unusual, too casually surreal, to be disregarded; patchy and awkward though a lot of it is, Bock's outing continually hints that its creator might be a major talent. Directed by Chris Jansen, Swimming in the Shallows is a 70-minute glance at modern friendship, romance, and self-fulfillment, and on a strictly technical level, Thursday's opening-day matinée was occasionally as bumpy as the material. Yet Bock displays such a gift for offhandedly gonzo stage business and dialogue, and Jansen's cast is so comically alert, that the production is never less than engaging, and is oftentimes madly inventive. I'm not sure what Bock is trying to say with his piece, or if he's trying to say anything at all, but he's definitely a voice worth hearing.
Six characters here populate the author's gently askew Rhode Island landscape. There's the middle-aged Barb (Perrin-Sallak), recently attracted to the Buddhist-monk theory that human beings need only eight possessions to live a rich, happy life. (She worries, though, whether a pair of shoes constitutes one item or two.) There's Barb's husband Bob (Flaherty), who reacts to his wife's newfound disdain of materialism by making more and more needless purchases. There are Donna (Kimberly Furness) and Carla Carla (Lora Adams), a committed lesbian couple whose marital plans might not survive Donna's nicotine addiction. There's Nick (Staver), a gay serial dater who tends to fall in love too fast, too often. And there's Nick's new romantic interest: the local aquarium's mako shark (Rob Sullivan), now enjoying a life of confinement after a career spent selling Avon products door to door.
It was really the shark that did it for me. Before his first appearance, Swimming in the Shallows boasts plenty of snappy banter and a bunch of good jokes, among them a throwaway comment about Unitarians that I wouldn't dream of spoiling. Yet it's all a bit too snappy. Wearing their eccentricities like placards - "Disenchanted!", "High-Strung!", "Smoker!" - Bock's characters don't talk to each other so much as at each other, and while Jansen's actors do this with great zest, you don't feel any particular connection between these supposedly dear friends; they're free-floating comic types that seem as vague as the play's locales and relationship with time. (During one especially odd exchange, Carla Carla asks Barb how her yard-sale-in-progress is going, and a few moments later, asks how much she made - past tense - at the yard sale.)
Bock's piece is also somewhat presentationally glib, as the author tests out a number of narrative devices without ever really committing to any of them. Sometimes passages dovetail gracefully from one into another, sometimes the flow is interrupted with center-stage projections titling individual scenes, sometimes actors break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. But there's no coherent strategy to the storytelling, and no rhyme or reason behind the stylization; Bock appears to be doing whatever he can to get from point A to point B regardless of whether the journey itself makes sense. (To be fair, part of Thursday's "What's going on here?" confusion could be attributed to the tech, which was pretty messy. In one sequence, random stage lights turned on and off for several seconds without landing on any of the performers that were meant to be lit.)
Still, Swimming with the Shallows' actors do their damnedest with what they're given, and come close to suggesting that Bock's almost terminally quirky figures have actual blood in their veins. Carla Carla is perhaps the show's most irritating role - her general sourness alleviated by the occasional hissy fit - and certainly the most irritatingly named. (Carla Carla. Talk about terminal quirkiness.) Yet Adams' tightly wound aggravation and fast readings engender laughs and a surprising amount of empathy, and her act plays well off Furness' blithely carefree, daffy radiance. Both performers are forced into too many bitchy quarrels (and both are too, shall we say, mature for these flibbertigibbet characters), but Adams and Furness are still a lovely pair.
Perrin-Sallak's gorgeously low, throaty voice and martini-dry comic deadpan are gifts from the acting gods, which makes her an inspired match for Flaherty, who's pretty much an acting god himself; with little stage time to do it in, his Bob emerges as the most soulful figure in sight. (Flaherty has an especially wonderful, poignant moment when he wordlessly expresses his dejection at Barb's sudden departure.) Staver, who has played more than his share of macho blowhards, slips effortlessly into his role as an endearingly hopeful gay man, his sweetness and ingenuousness convincing you that Nick might actually find his long-sought-after happiness with a shark.
And with the arrival of that shark, Swimming in the Shallows leaves the realm of the Coolly Absurd for the land of Major Loco, which proves to be a much more interesting place to be. As played by Sullivan - a gifted, naturalistic comedian - the mako is first seen whiling away the day in his tank ("Swim, swim, swim ... ") and enduring the occasional panic attack when nearing its borders. ("Glass! Glass! Look out for the glass!") Yet after meeting Nick and agreeing to a date, the shark proves to be a delightful and funny companion with values, an ethical code, and a true sense of self-worth, and against all logic, Bock gets you rooting for the couple, and longing to see where this intensely strange flirtation will lead. (True to form, Nick's friends worry that the shark will be the one hurt in the relationship.) Swimming in the Shallows might be a bit too-accurately titled - Bock's play is never as deep as it seems to want to be - but New Ground's latest is still clever and winningly acted, and like its unlikely romantic ideal, it's got a little bit of bite.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.