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Jack Goes Boating

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Daphne Rubin-Vega and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Photo by Monique Carboni

Life is a euphemism, old chum, so smoke a hookah and hit the hay (preferably with someone pretty) before it's too late. That kind of advice, emerging from the mouth of a stranger on the street, could provoke a fist fight, or at the very least inspire reduced eye contact and increased escape velocity. Yet those same words, when spoken by intimate acquaintances, might well be heeded, even held up as exemplars of a life well lived.

This contradiction serves as both fuel and speed bump for the puzzling Jack Goes Boating, the latest production of LAByrinth Theater Company, which is being presented at The Public Theater's Martinson Hall. Bob Glaudini's play dissects the advice, both helpful and otherwise, that's passed among four friends in present-day New York much the way cold germs are spread in a cramped office: Feeling fine one moment and rotten the next is the order of the day. If only the play itself didn't operate in what frequently feels like a codeine-induced haze.

Beth Cole and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Photo by Monique Carboni

At least as directed by Peter DuBois, the play is in no particular hurry to recount the social evolution of the no-ambition Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he begins exploring the exciting wilderness of relationships thanks to married friends Clyde and Lucy (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega) setting him up with a woman named Connie (Beth Cole). First, however, we need to understand Jack's reluctance, his effective apathy toward a life that's prepared him only for a career driving limousines (though he dreams of working for the MTA), and his nervousness about opening up his body and soul - to say nothing of Clyde and Lucy's kitchen - to someone else.

You can't do that in much less than an act. When stirred together with a surprising variety of water-related sex metaphors, which must be winkingly waded through before Jack can go "boating" (if you know what I mean!), you've got a recipe for a blithe and leisurely summer evening at the theatre best preceded by a light dinner and even lighter drinks. What you don't have is a play that says much about the mixed-up nature of relationships, whether with friends or with lovers, that we haven't heard before. And the fun and humor Glaudini's play provides, mostly in the first act, isn't quite robust enough to compensate.

Beth Cole, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega
Photo by Monique Carboni

The joke, such as it is, serving as the play's guiding force is that Clyde and Lucy have no business advising Jack on romance, as their marriage is based on burying the disagreements and betrayals they face on a daily basis. Most of their dialogue, especially late in the play, focuses on Lucy's infidelities with Jack's cooking instructor, nicknamed "The Cannoli" for reasons that needn't be mentioned here. Jack, stuck playing rulebookless referee for their escalating disagreements, must learn the hard way that love means more than exotic coffee and perfectly cooked pork chops. (Let's not ask - yet, anyway - what happens when those chops burn.)

This thin story never gets any additional meat on its bones. Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, despite valiant attempts (and frequent success) at injecting heat into their tenuous tête-à-têtes, can't make Clyde and Lucy feel like more than misfiring catalysts in the machinery of the meandering tale of Jack and Connie. But even though Hoffman and Cole summon a palpable erotic connection in two surprising scenes set in Connie's bedroom, they usually register as two barely lost souls who've just forgotten to unfold their roadmaps.

Hints abound that Glaudini was interested in exploring more than just disconnection for its own sake. Jack is an appealingly enigmatic character, whose precise emotional motives remain mostly undeveloped, even as he comes ever closer to his goal, and requires an actor who can fill in the blanks. Hoffman, an Oscar winner for playing the titular troubled soul of Capote, gives an amusing if pointedly lethargic performance that makes few choices, veering so haphazardly between making Jack simpleminded and antisocial you might want to bring along a Dramamine. Cole finds a much more balanced sense of teetering in her on-the-brink character, making Connie's physical assault on the subway less a stray plot point than the keystone event of the emotional collapse Jack must steadily undo.

That gradual reconstruction often proves a joy. Unfortunately, all the other tarrying in propelling Jack from singledom to love-aholism does little to enrich the play, and the second act's descent into hedonism (taking in not only marijuana, in a misplaced tribute to Rastafarianism, but also the less-spiritual cocaine) spoils most of the goodwill the free-spirited first act engenders. (David Korins's set, which moves effortlessly between Clyde and Lucy's apartment, Lucy and Connie's job, and a local swimming pool, sustains the proper fluidity throughout.)

With a more monogamous commitment to economy, the play could well prove as consistently sweet and funny as its best moments currently are. Right now, much of the excess rambling makes you want to ignore the destructive chit-chat and just follow where your heart leads. That's the not-so-hidden message that Glaudini and DuBois have tuned out a few too many times in Jack Goes Boating.

Jack Goes Boating
Through April 29
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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