Never Swim Alone & This Is a Play
nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
May 17, 2005
After a splash success at the 1999 FringeNYC Festival, and a subsequent Off-Broadway production in 2001, Toronto playwright Daniel MacIvor’s 1992 drama Never Swim Alone must qualify as some sort of local favorite. It’s rare for any play to have three separate productions in six years, let alone a one-act by a Canadian. And, after seeing the Bridge Company’s new production at Theater 54 (on a double bill with another MacIvor one-act), I have to say I don’t know what the fuss is all about.
The bulk of the play consists of a sort of masculinity contest between two young businessmen, Bill and Frank. And when I say contest I mean it literally: this is a competition, divided into rounds, in which each man tries to raise his status at the expense of the other in the fields of sex, business, personal dress, etc. The contest is officiated by a young woman in a swimsuit who sits in a lifeguard chair and makes the calls—the winner of each round gets to direct a short, self-justifying monologue to the audience. As the game proceeds, facts about the men’s lives and their boyhood pasts together are revealed with increasing detail, building up to a general indictment of modern manhood.
If this sounds like a lot of concept, it is; and that’s about all it is. The play is heavy on structure, light on depth. There’s no context, no impetus for this struggle, except that the play calls for it. The only thing we really find out about the characters in this dramatic neverland is that one’s a failure, the other’s a success, and both are schmucks. The piece’s formal playfulness can’t mask a soulless knee-jerk misanthropy reminiscent of Neil LaBute—and just because it was written before LaBute’s rise to fame doesn’t make it any better.
I have to admit this is a shame, because I liked the acting and direction almost as much as I disliked the script. Amos Crawley and Dustin Olson are good actors, and though I found them more believable as good actors than as the cynical back-slapping (and -stabbing) automatons the script calls for, their general likeability and technical skills (especially during some of the play’s athletic bouts of stylistic repetition) make the bitter pill go down a bit more smoothly. Jennifer Laine Williams, in the utterly thankless female role, makes you wish she had more to do than repeat the same few lines and blow a whistle every now and again.
The evening’s curtain-raiser, This Is a Play is a bit more amusing, if only because it’s content to be a simple entertainment. Employing a facile meta-theatrical conceit (the actors toggle back and forth between speaking their lines and subjectively describing their actions and feelings while doing so), the script occasionally manages to cut through its postmodern trappings and get off a few decent zingers at the expense of pretentious self-serving theatre folk—though that stereotype is in itself a cliche on par with the hoary Tennessee Williams parody that constitutes the play-within-a-play (think “The Lettuce Tattoo”). Again, the whole affair is offset by a fine cast (Esther Barlow, Lori Lane Jefferson, and Robin Mervin), whose graceful comic aplomb is more than the material deserves.
Throughout the whole evening, I found myself impressed with the well-oiled production put together by director Jason Fraser. His pacing and stage imagery are spot-on, every line and movement taut and precise. I’d be thrilled to see what his exacting approach does for material that has assets to enlighten, rather than flaws to expose.