Interspecies romance isn’t the sole domain of Greek mythology or Edward Albee. In Swimming in the Shallows, a lovesick gay boy falls for a mako shark at the local aquarium. The meet-cute scene is brief and virtually wordless. Nick (Michael Arden) stands in front of the Plexiglas tank, silently mind-melding with the creature as it navigates its claustrophobic confines. Later, Nick dreams of a sexual encounter with the animal, set in an underwater gay bar. The hot shark (Logan Marshall-Green) flirts with him, nibbles at his body . . . and then literally sinks its teeth into his neck.
Is it love at first bite? Swimming in the Shallows treats its unusual infatuation as your everyday teen crush, all giddy apprehension and nervous fumbling. Clearly, a little man-shark love is no big deal in playwright Adam Bock’s sweetly absurdist view of life. Set in a coastal Rhode Island burg that could be an alternate-universe Dawson’s Creek, the play follows two other dysfunctional couples. Carla Carla (Susan Pourfar) is a temperamental young nurse who must decide whether she wants to marry her high-spirited girlfriend, Donna (Rosemarie DeWitt), who works as a docent at the aquarium. Meanwhile, fortysomething Barb (Mary Shultz) is just discovering Buddhism, much to the dismay of her handyman husband, Bob (Murphy Guyer). Sporting New England accents all around, the cast gets to poke gentle fun at regional Americana. “What’s the mattuh, Bawb?” asks Barb. “Aw, nothin’, Bawb,” Bob replies. And so on.
The play’s troubled romances predictably coalesce into a pleasing whole, but Swimming in the Shallows seldom feels conventional. Mundane activities such as Barb’s yard sale or Donna’s abortive attempts to quit smoking assume a hysterical vibe, while truly freakish occurrences, particularly Nick’s beachside conversation with the shark, play out nonchalantly. All that is normal is weird, and everything weird is inexplicably normal. Are we staring into the deep end of the water or the shallow end? In a nice touch, director Trip Cullman creates a subtly disorienting feel for the play, often arranging the actors in two-dimensional single file as a means of further confounding the viewer’s depth perception.
Swimming in the Shallows affectionately sends up the clichés usually associated with teen summertime entertainment. There are the requisite romances and breakups, the parties and hangovers, the all-night soul-swapping sessions on back porches, and the many long hours spent simply staring out at the ocean, thinking of nothing. This wet, hot, polysexual American summer contains its fair share of melancholy interludes. At times, it even reaches an almost mature level of introspection. The energetic cast members, all of them excellent, gamely flip from slapstick to melodrama and back again, without ever taking the whole thing too seriously. By staying resolutely in shallow, frolicsome waters, the play manages to achieve something unexpectedly, if quietly, profound.