Swimming in the Shallows
Just your average romantic comedy about a guy and a shark meeting cute
Published: April 13, 2011
Swimming in the Shallows
By Adam Bock
Presented by Iron Crow Theatre Company through April 14-16.
Nick (Paul Wissman) is in love. Well, according to the verbally tangential Barb (Joan Weber), Nick is technically only infatuated, since he hasn’t yet met the object of his desire and doesn’t even know his name. Nick hopes his friend Donna (Karin Crighton) might introduce them, since she works with his latest desire at the aquarium, though Donna has enough romantic entanglements of her own: She’s trying to quit smoking so that her girlfriend Carla Carla (Caitlyn Joy) will agree to marry her. And, well, technically Donna doesn’t work with Nick’s crush. He’s part of an exhibition: a shark.
Director Michele Minnick makes the minimal most out of playwright Adam Bock’s Swimming in the Shallows, a fairly conventional romantic comedy ingeniously spiked with an absurdist streak and wily verbal silliness. As a sex object, the shark (Christopher H. Zargarbashi in a body-hugging wet suit) is certainly more appealing than any number of Nick’s other beaus. He’s handsome, he’s witty, and he’s a little bit dangerous on their first date at the beach, which seems to go OK until things get a little too intimate.
You see, Nick might have a habit of making himself sexually available too early when he meets someone, rushing from meet-cute to in-the-sack before getting to know more about the guy—or even his last name. Donna reminds him of this, as she tries to quit smoking for Carla Carla and he tries to break his own bad habit. His romantic life has become a revolving door of one-night stands that end up kicking Nick’s big heart when they don’t turn into actual relationships. Perhaps there can be something more with the shark, who swims circles (conveyed by Zargarbashi whooshing by on inline skates) in a tank at the aquarium.
What’s so appealing about Iron Crow’s Shallows is how giddily normal this ludicrous idea feels, thanks to the cast handling Bock’s ingenious mix of the sincere and ridiculous. Everybody in the play is undergoing some form of romantic quirk: An article about Buddhist monks owning only eight things has Barb re-evaluating her life and marriage to Bob (Steve Satta), who tragically underestimates and doesn’t listen to Barb’s latest metaphysical anxiety. Donna’s smoking is really a substitute for bigger questions Carla Carla has about their relationship, and their back and forth about their lives and, eventually, their wedding offers some of the play’s comedic gems: An argument about why Texan food isn’t Southwestern fare moves with the circular, illogical rationale familiar to anybody who has tried to make sense out of a partner who is refusing to talk about the heart of what’s bothering her by talking about everything else.
And Bock’s ability to capture the sometimes nutso casualness of exchanges between partners is what makes Shallows so entertaining. Wissman does a fabulous job of navigating Nick’s mix of coy flirtatiousness and needy vulnerability, but even with a male actor standing in for a shark there’s no reason why their scenes together should play out so believably—unless, as Bock does wisely here, he portrays two other romantic partnerships that are just as, if not more so, completely over the top. Crighton and Joy make Donna and Carla Carla’s antics feel real and infuriating, combining genuine relationship anxiety with the sort of nitpicky specificity that makes the one you love the only person in the world you’d ever, just for a moment, consider locking in the trunk of the car.
But it’s Weber’s Barb that really hits the emotional sweet spot. Despite a sometimes wobbly performance, Weber manages to make Barb’s journey from skittish naiveté to inner strength comically disarming. Barb has the most conventional relationship here, in some ways the one that’s most stable with the most to lose. But it’s also the one that’s the most suffocating and unfulfilled, the one in which the person no longer feels like herself. And while Barb’s method for moving on might contain a little madness, it ends up feeling like Shallows’ most touching.
> Email Bret McCabe