After 15 years, the LAByrinth still has it together — the “it” being a bold company style, solid professional chops, and a strong feeling for the kind of plays that show real New Yorkers being real. Even with the movie-star presence of co-artistic director Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role of “Jack Goes Boating,” Bob Glaudini’s endearing romantic comedy about a married couple and the social-misfit friends they fix up on a date is a terrific model of the company’s collective style — witty and knowing and all heart.
Jack (Hoffman) and his best friend Clyde (LAByrinth co-artistic director John Ortiz) are limousine drivers for a company that, at least in Jack’s case, doesn’t seem especially concerned about the corporate image it projects to its clients. For while the well-groomed and self-assured Clyde (a manly, but charming cock-of-the-walk in Ortiz’s strutting perf) looks as if he could negotiate the Cross-Bronx Expressway with his eyes closed, the unkempt and goofy-looking Jack doesn’t inspire much confidence that he could find his way home from a beer run.
Hoffman plainly adores Jack, for all his inept social manners and clumsy cultural enthusiasms. Shirttails out and hanging over his belly, blond hair matted in some misguided version of white-boy dreadlocks, the thesp beams with a kind of beatific grace at his inarticulate delight in the reggae song “Rivers of Babylon,” which he plays over and over on an old-fashioned cassette player.
Clyde and his smart and sexy wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega, who can do no wrong) are fond of Jack, too. As a sign of their affection, they have set him up for a date with Lucy’s friend Connie (a bruised and sensitive misfit, deserving of her lovely perf by company newcomer Beth Cole), who works as the assistant to the embalmer at a funeral parlor.
It’s tempting to laugh at Connie’s aspirations to get out of the embalming room and become a telemarketer for “grief seminars” for some hustler who calls himself “Dr. Bob,” just as it’s easy to find something funny in Jack’s anxieties about applying for a job with the transit company. But there’s no such condescension in Glaudini’s affectionate attitude toward his characters, and those easy laughs at their modest aspirations never quite come.
What’s really funny, in the scribe’s poignant treatment of these oddball lovers, are all the insane impediments thrown in the way of their delicate start-up relationship. When Connie suggests she would like to go boating with Jack, once they get through the bone-chilling winter, he decides he’d better learn how to swim first.
Clyde agrees, and in an enchanting sequence of scenes (imaginatively helmed by Peter DuBois in a suggestive setting designed by David Korins), generously takes charge of Jack’s swimming lessons. As friendships go, this one is sweet and funny and deeply touching.
And as plots go, this one goes hilariously awry over a cozy dinner party at Jack and Lucy’s apartment. When Connie says no one has ever cooked a meal for her, Jack, a culinary jackass, applies himself to learning how to cook one perfect meal — a piece de resistance in Hoffman’s deliciously obsessive practice runs, but a total disaster when the big night comes and the friends all get stoned and reveal secrets best left buried.
In love, sex and life, both Connie and Jack have been stunted by their perfectionist ideals, something Glaudini observes with as much compassion as humor. But even those savvy realists, Clyde and Lucy, have to keep their guard up in a cosmic universe where anything as delicate as happiness is easily crushed. Much as we want Jack and Connie to overcome their inhibitions without sacrificing their ideals, it’s hard to ignore Glaudini’s implicit warnings about the fragility of all life on this crazy planet.