Surprisingly cumbersome switches between designer Scott Pask’s office and courtroom locations are an unintentional metaphor for the problem beneath “The Same Deep Water As Me.” Nick Payne — who wrote “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” the play that brought Jake Gyllenhaal to Off Broadway — is attempting to write about men’s expectations of themselves but the vast majority of Mamet-lite stage time focuses on the workings of a “no-win-no-fee” scam that winds up in court. Thematically, the two are linked; theatrically, they’re poorly balanced.
Near-washed-up lawyer Andrew (edgy Daniel Mays) is one half of Scorpion Claims, a rundown legal outfit run by benign Barry (underused Nigel Lindsay.) When Andrew’s former schoolmate Kevin (swaggering loudmouth Marc Wootton) turns up with a claim about a minor car accident, Barry dismisses him on the grounds that he appears untrustworthy. Smart decision, Barry. What he doesn’t know is that Andrew is succumbing to the pressures of past ties and the possibility of easy money.
In the funniest scene, lit by flashlight due to a power outage, Andrew, Kevin and their stooges sort out the scam’s details. They’ll use two drivers to fix a fake accident involving a van from a supermarket chain from which Kevin and his family will claim compensation. Rather than risk the high costs of contesting the claim, the supermarket will settle out of court. It’s a “compensation culture” legal dodge that’s on the rise and they’re determined to use it.
The amusingly low-rent “Small Time Crooks” feel (albeit with fouler banter) is augmented by Andrew on phone calls to his unseen but unwell father. This underwritten relationship, however, feels planted and fails to land in anything but a generalized way. And when the suspicious supermarket takes the case to court after all, everything is put on hold.
Payne has a sharp ear for dialogue and mines the court scenes for comedy. But although helmer John Crowley exaggerates characters’ behavior to satirical effect — especially sleek and coolly patronizing Monica Dolan as an upper-class solicitor — the laughs are, for the most part, too easily won, born of exaggeration rather than observation.
Tension arrives with the case concluding in a manner not on the cards. But the attempt to add on scenes of emotional fallout depends on a depth of character precluded by the script. Late-arriving dependencies and connections are suddenly raised. But both Barry’s disappointment in Andrew and potentially rekindled embers of a relationship between the latter and Kevin’s dominated wife Jennifer (wonderfully precise Niky Wardley) are underwritten.
Mays whips up energy to justify Andrew’s ultimate eruption of self-loathing but even he can’t justify the climatic, over-explanatory speech. His cry “You wanna know what the real problem is…?” is too obviously less about his character’s insight than a case of the author explaining the meaning of the play.
The evening is a puzzle. Payne’s TV-dialogue writing and the dramatic structure here are considerably less ambitious than any of his other plays, including the prize-winning “Constellations.” On the surface it’s an agreeable play, but its weakness makes one wonder why more dramaturgical work wasn’t done on a script so evidently more than one draft away from readiness.