2006_09_arts_neverswim.jpg“Never Swim Alone” is a swift, funny satire about two Alpha-males and their ruthless competition for the title of Top Dog. The play is structured as a surreal egotistic boxing match: Frank and Bill, two guys in dark suits and bad ties, square off in a 13 round Battle Royale of vicious undermining and one-upmanship.

It is at first unclear why these guys are at odds; they have so much in common that they often trade identical insults in unison. (Though this may sound irritating, the effect is downright mesmerizing.) Nor is it immediately clear what is at stake in their showdown; only a reference to being ‘the first man’ is mentioned.

There are other tantalizing mysteries: Their sparring is refereed by a seemingly anonymous woman in a one-piece bathing suit who blows a whistle to announce the rounds and declares a winner at the end of each one.

But as their cage match grows increasingly bitter, a tragic story emerges implicating all three characters. We learn that the woman’s role as referee is the result of a childhood swimming race between her, Frank and Bill. It was a playful competition with tragic consequences that gives the play its raw emotional core.

Playwright Daniel MacIvor’s most remarkable feat in “Never Swim Alone” is the way in which he unfolds this moving story outside the boundaries of typical naturalistic style. By the rules of his formally spare world, the declared winner of each round is entitled to a sort of verbal-victory lap, where he further cuts the loser down with such gems as, “Finishing second has its benefits, such as less income tax.”

Later, the house-proud Bill takes the audience on a tour of his McMansion that culminates in his “secret room”, which is vacant but for a window. Here he gazes out at the different kinds of soil, trees and roads while declaring everything he sees to be “mine, all mine.” To this Frank retorts, “I heard you rent.”

Especially funny is a nuanced (non-explicit) pissing contest, with an exaggerated competition to be the man who takes longest to un-spool his length of cable. (That round is declared a tie by the increasingly attentive Ref.)

The razor-sharp satire sometimes drops away to expose tender moments of longing for lost boyhood summers before they succumbed to the Darwinian business world. Finally the origin of Bill and Frank’s power struggle, on that summer day at the beach, is re-enacted with incantatory, climactic power.

It’s fascinating that although initially Frank and Bill seem nearly identical, by the end they are established as two distinct individuals. Perhaps this is because only one can win the race to be “the first man”; the results define each guy as either a winner or loser.

It is mentioned early and often that while both men have briefcases, only one has a gun inside. What makes the play compelling, however, is not the threat of gunplay but its unflinching examination of status-hungry dudes and their passion for screwing the other guy - even when that guy is a boyhood friend. It figures that soon after they recite their boyhood oath of brotherhood (complete with complex secret handshake), the first man is strangling the second with his necktie.

After nearly throttling Bill to death, Frank concludes that “the first man is the man who is guiltless.” It becomes clear that this “guiltlessness” is the ultimate spoil of their bout; history is written by the victors.

Douglas Dickerman and John Maria are both pitch-perfect in their send-up of aggro, faux-chummy businessmen. Susan Louis O’Connor, as Referee, has a captivating presence that imbues the slightest glance with mysterious import. But the most palpable presence, though he remains off stage, is Daniel MacIvor, who The New York Times recently lauded as “vastly underrated and prolific” while marveling that a playwright of his caliber could still remain unknown. (Of course, his underground status was likely shattered with that morning’s edition.) But is it really any surprise by now that theater gets more exciting the further one strays from the Stem?

Remaining performances, which are part of the Fringe Encore series, are September 12th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th at The Lion Theater, tickets can be purchased at www.ticketcentral.com. Daniel MacIvor’s weblog is here: www.danielmacivor.com
Fringe Encore series: www.fringenyc-encoreseries.com