- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008

“Swimming in the Shallows” is a postmodern screwball comedy about possessions and obsessions by Canadian playwright Adam Bock that is rendered with inspired lunacy by Catalyst Theater.

Directed with considerable sparkle and charm by Scott Fortier, “Swimming in the Shallows” is about three couples trying to make their way through the rocky shoals of relationships. Barb (Ellen Young) finds her life changed after reading that Buddhist monks in Thailand only own eight things. Comfortably married to Bob (the delightfully phlegmatic Scott Bailey) for years, Barb now wants to rid her life of the stuff she has — and that has her.

Packing off her Hummel figurines and cat bowls to the Salvation Army and the dump is at first anticlimactic, but then Barb realizes that by paring down she has made a space for herself. And she does not want to fill that empty space with more Bob. His reaction to her absence makes for some of the play’s most hilarious and poignant moments, as he schlumps around completely at a loss as to what to do with himself without his wife, his slumped body language conveying more than words ever could.

On the other hand, Carla Carla (Adrienne Nelson, bristling with smarts and sparks) and her girlfriend Donna (September Marie Fortier) are on the brink of matrimony. What stands in the way of bridal bliss is Donna’s smoking and Carla’s ambivalence about a wedding. Donna’s attempts to kick the habit through a Smokenders class where everyone sneaks a butt in the bathroom engagingly show the lengths we will go through to please — and pull one over on — the ones we love.

Their friend Nick (Christopher Janson, who brings wolfish wit to the role) wants to reverse his behavior of jumping into bed too quickly, since his relationships tend to have a shelf life of no more than three weeks. The object of his — now delayed — desire is a shark (Patrick Bussink, languidly predatory) he meets at the aquarium. Their first date is, naturally, at the beach and their teasing pursuit of each other is gently sexy and fun.

The structure of “Swimming in the Shallows” is mostly episodic in the classic sitcom or romantic comedy tradition, but the mold is broken in a series of demented dream sequences that reveal the loopy inner workings of the characters. Barb has an out-of-body experience in the cereal aisle of the grocery store; Nick’s dream date with Shark combines the smarmiest moments from “Dirty Dancing” and a Justin Timberlake video; and all of Carla’s anxieties about commitment collide in a riot of white lace, exploding flashbulbs and wedding cake.

The playwright’s gift for surreal madness and rip-snorting repartee is reminiscent of early Christopher Durang, but Mr. Bock also departs from irony and sarcasm with deeply poetic passages describing everyday scenes. Most of the cast moves deftly between the slapstick and the finer feelings, but an overall inconsistency in acting does make for some rough passages.

The humor in “Swimming in the Shallows” is embracing rather than catty and campy, and so it is fitting that the play ends with a seaside wedding reception where everyone is on his or her best behavior and for a few hours, between posing for pictures and doing the Chicken Dance, they allow themselves to believe in the possibility of a love that is as predictable and flowing as the tide itself.

*** WHAT: “Swimming in the Shallows” by Adam Bock

WHERE: Catalyst Theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays. Through March 8.

TICKETS: $10

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

WEB SITE: www.catalysttheater.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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