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Swimming in the Shallows

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Few places but in Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows would it make emotional sense for a man to be in love with a shark.

Whether that shark is real, metaphorical, or some combination of the two is open to interpretation. But when you see Logan Marshall-Green, who plays the wily aquatic creature, dancing around the stage and posing for pictures, it's hard to resist the eccentricities on offer in Second Stage's New Plays Uptown production. Sometimes, you just have to let yourself go and accept as off-kilter fact what's happening before your eyes.

No message emerges more vividly from Bock's highly amusing play, which is running at the McGinn/Cazale through July 17: Love and happiness are wherever you find them, but whatever you do, don't get the two confused. There's a world of difference between what you think you need and what you actually need from others, and from yourself.

If this message sounds a bit familiar, particularly within the human-animal-love genre Edward Albee visited a few seasons back with The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, it should: Bock treads much of the same ground, and explores many of the same romantic vagaries. But those put off by Albee's treatment should be advised that Swimming in the Shallows is a considerably more lighthearted and open-handed treatment, and all but dismisses the bestiality angle as a quirky device more in keeping with establishing the quirky, other-worldly Rhode Island in which the play is set.

Of far more interest to Bock are the effects love and desire have on all of us when they're stripped down to their most essential levels. Yes, there's the romance, such as it is, between the shark and the young, sexually promiscuous Nick (Michael Arden). But of equal importance are the troubled relationships between Donna (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Carla Carla (Susan Pourfar) and between Barb (Mary Shultz) and Bob (Murphy Guyer): Carla Carla refuses to marry Donna until she gives up smoking; Barb, after learning of Buddhist monks who own but a handful of possessions, reconsiders all the baggage in her life, including Bob.

This does tend to lead to scenes not exactly notable for their originality: Barb has a yard sale and ends up with more junk than she started with; Bob bargains relentlessly to try to get her to come back to him; the wedding is called off and rescheduled numerous times; there's even a lengthy series of scenes in which Nick and Donna attempt to give up the compulsions that are holding them back. These and similar scenes that don't really explore the uniqueness of the characters or situations are invariably dramatically waterlogged.

But Bock has great facility with lively, fast-paced dialogue, and his writing for everyone is at its best when it's at its most characterful. A series of dream sequences depicting - in increasingly over-the-top detail - the characters' deepest fears is a major comic highlight, and the show becomes genuinely moving when focusing on the characters' inner turmoils, particularly those of Nick and Barb, who are most desperate in their need to have more by having less.

That philosophy is also echoed in Trip Cullman's fluid, sparkling direction, which makes full use of Paul Whitaker's lights to shift instantaneously between the real world and imagination. Bart Fasbender's clever sound design and David Korins's deceptively spare set (yes, there's a shark tank hidden somewhere) prove as important as the actors in establishing and maintaining the atmosphere throughout.

The actors are excellent across the board, though DeWitt, Guyer, and Pourfar are stranded pretty close to thanklessness in their roles, given little of the show's most interesting material. (DeWitt is especially good at crafting a compelling something from very little.) If Arden is too young to believably convey Nick's relationship weariness, he and Shultz superbly juggle the serious and comic elements that flood the minds and emotions of their central characters.

The same is true of Marshall-Green, who goes out of his way to make the shark both violent and likable, both dangerous and sympathetic. Bock, of course, makes it easy for him: A late-show scene in which the shark and Nick commune on the beach finds the shark captivated by the ocean he thought he'd never see again, and recalling both the loneliness he felt and the desires he suppressed when faced with other swimmers.

It's a moment of serene, unexpected beauty not at all out of place in a play that's otherwise energized by its need to be frenetically different. Despite other moments and snatches of dialogue that capture the human condition in fits and starts, it's this scene more than any other that makes you realize how deep Swimming in the Shallows really can be.

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Swimming in the Shallows
Through July 17
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street (above The Promenade Theatre)
Schedule and Tickets: 212.246.4422