The triumph of Never Swim Alone, by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, is that it takes characters who are scarcely more than stereotypes (man as unalloyed, ruthless competitor) and dialogue that rarely rises above banalities and transmutes them into a startlingly new piece of theater, just as a jazz musician might create a blowout set by spinning improvisation upon improvisation over a hackneyed jingle.
The story of Bill (Douglas Dickerman) and Frank (John Maria), childhood chums who are now thirtysomething briefcase-wielding suits, is structured as a prize fight in 12 rounds. The piece begins with a body bathed in red light lying center stage covered with a towel. As the two men enter, greeting and gladhanding the audience like visiting politicos, they remove the towel to reveal a young woman in a blue bathing suit (Susan O’Connor), who rises and blows a whistle to start the match. Acting both as referee and judge, she also, bit by bit, reveals the part she played in a dark chapter of their youth.
Bill and Frank are hardly distinguishable from each other. Each has a conventional job, wife, son, house. Yet they are locked in a fierce rivalry over which of them is “first”—who’s taller, richer, or better liked. The rounds are titled: “Uniform” (one is caught wearing the wrong-colored socks); “Members Only” (the ref measures their penis size—whew, a tie!); “Father” (whose dad was the sorrier souse and cuckold). As the fight leaps from round to round, the verbal sparring, often very funny, turns nastier, then gets physical. Early on the girl tells us one of the men has a gun in his briefcase. It becomes only a question of who and when and how.
Under Timothy P. Jones’s meticulous direction, MacIvor’s spare, poetic script is a choreographed dance toward destruction. Bill and Frank intone their dialogue in unison, antiphonally, or solo, repeating words and phrases, weaving in and around each other, verbally and in space. The men race in a more and more intense staccato rhythm, broken at intervals by the girl’s oft repeated refrain, a dreamy account of a critical day at the beach one late afternoon in summer. Miming a fight, a swim, the pace grows frenetic. The riveting conclusion caps a performance that is a tour de force for the three actors. Their movement, their timing, their control of tone, leaves you quite breathless. And perhaps not caring that nothing very profound emerges about these generic guy-guys.
— The lead figure in Andrew C. Ordover’s The Wind on the Water is also a thirtysomething guy in a suit, a nominally Jewish investment banker who attracts a bit of unwanted attention when he arises one Christmas morning mysteriously bleeding from stigmata-like wounds in his hands. Ordover uses this imaginative premise to explore people’s fervent need to believe and the power of religion to corrupt and kill. And for most of the play, he skillfully maintains the balance between serious inquiry and social satire.
When David Lazarus (Howie Ravikoff) wakes up with bloody palms after a night of partying, he does what any sensible fellow would—goes to the doctor. While he’s at the Upper West Side office of Dr. Chysostomos (Stu Richel), though, crowds gather to witness the Christmas “miracle.” Besieged and afraid to leave, he is visited by Joe (Davyd Dean), a cynical Daily News reporter; Maggie (Amy Beth Sherman), a flaky East Village girl stricken with adoration; and the Reverend Gideon (Bob Romano), an ambitious fundamentalist preacher convinced that David is the millennial messenger for the imminent Day of Judgment.
While David strives to convince the crowd, “I’m just a guy—I wear a tie,” he is undercut by his palms suddenly spouting blood. When he escapes into hiding, reporter Joe writes bigger and bigger headlines, sardonically counting off “Armageddon Watch, Day 7.” Repercussions mushroom worldwide, with Christians flying to Israel to get seats for the Second Coming and Jewish fanatics wanting to bomb the Dome of the Rock to make way for the rebuilding of the Temple.
David, of course, thinks this is all a lot of hooey. Until God starts booming through him à la The Exorcist. For most of the play, Ordover maintains the tension between belief in the miraculous and feet-on-the-ground skepticism. The kindly, intellectual doctor is a counterpoint to the fire-and-brimstone preacher, the mocking reporter an antidote to the blissed-out Maggie. But then the playwright tries to make us leap the chasm between doubt and belief, and the plot takes some hard-to-swallow twists. The dialogue and pacing turn soggy and confusing.
Still, the piece is rich, and often funny. Mostly, the actors perform ably, especially Ravikoff as the regular guy inflicted with martyrdom, Romano as the polished zealot preacher, and Richel as the pensive, doubting physician. Ordover directs tautly, making dramatic use of designer Brad Nelson’s palette of light and shadow. Though not all of it is believable, in The Wind on the Water you can almost hear the footfall of the barbarians at the gates—a scary sound on this eve of the millennium.