Adam Bock’s in-your-dreams fantasy about romantic commitment proves a nice fit for Second Stage’s Uptown workshop series, which showcases emerging playwrights in streamlined productions with first-rate creative personnel. Like some bush-league Craig Lucas, Bock (“The Audience”) tells his fairy tale in a surreal idiom that shows wit and imagination. Working with a loose-limbed structure of episodic scenes, scribe focuses on cute characters caught up in winsome gay love stories deriving considerable charm from their oddball humor. It’s derivative, but darling.
Helmer Trip Cullman and his supersharp ensemble take a playful approach to the offbeat material. The lights are bright, the characterizations are broad, and the line readings are delivered in droll deadpan. But what else would you expect when one of the key players is a shark?
Set in some hick working-class town in Rhode Island, play revolves around a group of friends struggling in different ways with commitment issues. Scrappy lesbian couple Donna (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Carla Carla (Susan Pourfar) are making on-again/off-again wedding plans. At the same time, Carla Carla’s best friend, Barb (Mary Shultz), is slowly easing out of her marriage to Bob (Murphy Guyer) and tentatively edging into a more monastic lifestyle.
“I have so much stuff I feel heavy,” Barb says, explaining why she has decided to get rid of all her “stuff” (including her husband) and live in a bare room with the eight material possessions Buddhist monks consider sufficient to sustain human life. Her brow furrowed from the effort to make sense of such a radical concept, Shultz plays Barb with an air of intellectual earnestness that is both madly funny and … well, mad.
Meanwhile, Donna’s best friend, Nick (Michael Arden), is determined to give up one-night stands with feckless guys and settle down — preferably with that sexy shark (Logan Marshall-Green) he spots swimming around in the shark tank of the town aquarium.
In regards to that fish tank, set designer David Korins pulls off a real coup de theatre with a “brick” wall that slides up to reveal a convincing underwater view of the swimming shark. It’s all done with reflecting mirrors and eerie green lights, but all the same, kudos for that bit of magic.
Marshall-Green plays the shark with dangerous sex appeal. Attracted to Nick but struggling to resist his natural inclinations, he is every bit the Byronic hero. For good measure, he is also a poet, the only character in this romantic fable who speaks the language of seduction: “I liked swimming in the shallows. I liked being near people in the water. I liked feeling the blood vibrating in their bodies. I liked the heat. I liked the thrash.”
No wonder this lean and lethal predator appeals to Nick, a boyish sleep-around lad whose sudden yearning for a “meaningful” relationship is conveyed with enormous charm by Arden. But the tolerance level in this quirky crowd is so high that everybody treats the shark with respect. Knowing Nick’s flighty tendencies, the women even worry that the sensitive shark may get hurt in the relationship.
By comparison, the romance between Donna and Carla Carla may seem staid. But between Bock’s idiosyncratic idiom and the thesps’ enthusiastic attack on blue-collar lingo, the emotional ups and downs of their volatile relationship are genuinely touching.
The only character who gets the short end of the stick in this romantic fable is Barb’s forsaken husband, Bob, who does his best to get rid of all their material possessions (by tossing them in the swimming pool) but can’t quite get the hang of the philosophical principle. Guyer plays the poor shmuck in the proper state of sweet confusion, but Bock refuses to give him a break, even though Bob instinctively grasps the bit of wisdom — “It’s part of life to get attached” — that the other characters are struggling to attain.
If Bock doesn’t intend to freeze out the straight audience, he may want to rethink the ending of his play.