It’s clear that “Swimming in the Shallows” is an odd play when the most sexual and entertaining love scene occurs between a man and a shark. A flaky fusion of realistic and fanciful situations in the David Lindsay-Abaire/David Ives vein, the script by Adam Bock has an unfinished-first-draft quality and depends heavily on director Anthony Meindl to keep it above water.
Meindl is up to the task. A specialist in tragic, relentlessly dark dramas (“Dogs Barking,” “The Dead Eye Boy”), Meindl proves equally at home with lunatic comedy, and he gives his game cast humorously eccentric speech patterns and movements.
The show’s cleverest creation is Barb (Danielle Hoover), a nurse who embraces Buddhism and wants to simplify her life by discarding everything, including husband Bob (Josh Levy).
Interweaving stories spotlight aquarium employee and chain-smoker Donna (Jennifer Fitzgerald), eager to marry girlfriend Carla Carla (Shannon Sweetmon), if a cluster of conflicts can be ironed out.
Also experiencing romantic problems is pal Nick (Robbie Cain), who hops into bed too hastily with various boyfriends and then despairs of finding a relationship. For no earthly reason, Nick flips for the Shark (Guy Woodson) and dives in emotionally. The object of his affections is a mako shark, and purists may be puzzled when they instead see great whites projected via video.
As Buddhism-addicted Barb, Hoover is a strikingly starchy sight in nurse’s uniform, horn-rimmed glasses and long white knee socks provided by capable costumers Anna Wang and Emily Mills. She seizes a familiar stereotype — the empty, searching personality who fastens onto new fads and religions — and brings it winningly to life, resisting any impulse to poke fun at Barb’s endless jabbering about a new spiritual path (“People in Thailand need only eight things to be happy”).
Levy expresses honest and credible consternation as her acquisitive spouse, giving the anti-materialism slant authenticity. This portion of the plot shows author Bock’s writing ability. Barb and Bob’s story packs so much potential, and is so realistically rooted in truth, that Bock could well have dispensed with the other protagonists and turned the couple’s problems into a full-length play.
This impression is intensified when we realize the two parallel episodes lack similar promise. Although Sweetmon and Fitzgerald peck at each other, the incompatibilities that threaten their happiness — fights about food, objections about living with a smoker, disagreements regarding the right minister to choose for a commitment ceremony — are routine and superficially treated. There’s nothing about these two that suggests a workable relationship, and although both actresses know how to milk a laugh line, they have to ham it up because the witty words are in such short supply.
Cain is an easy, agreeable presence as promiscuous Nick. His lust for a shark would be ridiculously contrived if not for Woodson’s charismatic, appropriately sharp-edged portrayal. Woodson, dressed in black tank top and shorts, with silver dorsal fin attached to his back, is screen-star handsome, with a Kevin Bacon grin. Meindl and choreographer Alison Simpson-Smith stage a show-stopping dance between the two potential lovers, enhanced by Michael Resnick’s eye-popping strobe lighting.
Woodson’s shark gives the show biting moments, and the first-rate directorial and thesping contributions sporadically manage to transform slender, toothless material.