2005_06_arts_sharklover.JPG Several times during Swimming in the Shallows, the new play by Adam Bock, a window on a big closet-like structure lifts to reveal that it is an aquarium in which a large shark is swimming. Well, actually it’s not so much an aquarium as a large box with angled mirrors, and the shark isn’t a shark so much as it (he) is Logan Marshall-Green with a fin strapped to his back, and he’s not swimming so much as he is scooting along with his stomach on a skateboard. In any case, he keeps slamming into the glass walls that enclose him, and this seems as apt a metaphor as any for the emotional struggles faced by the characters in this moderately appealing show – that most people face at some point, really. You’re gliding along, intoning something along the lines of “swim...swim...swim” and then all of a sudden, wham! And you can’t even see what you hit properly in order to understand it.

There are three couples in the play: Nick (Michael Arden) and the Shark (who isn’t confined to the “water”), Donna (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Carla Carla (Susan Pourfar), and Barb and Bob, whose names sound identical in the thick northeastern accents the actors (Mary Schultz and Murphy Guyer) use, but who seem as dissimilar in outlook as two people can be. Barb has decided that she wants to live like a Buddhist monk, which means reducing her possessions to eight, and that obsession naturally wears pretty quickly on Bob. The other characters also have relationship difficulties: Nick is a flamboyant young gay man who has trouble going slowly in relationships and never commits; Donna, on the other hand, wants to commit to Carla Carla and formalize things with a wedding, but she can’t stop smoking, a habit that Carla Carla loathes, and both of them are nervous about marrying anyway, even though they want to.

2005_06_arts_swimshallow.JPG Barb and Carla Carla, and Donna and Nick, are close friends, so we hear about the relationships as the characters complain in conversation, but we also observe their various tics and conflicts. Barb’s situation is the most unusual – and, to Gothamist, the most interesting and well-acted, and it could have used more development, if not a whole play of its own. Nick’s courtship of the shark is bizarre, of course, at least if taken literally, but aside from that bit of inter-species love and any parallels you might want to draw about sharks and lovers, it didn’t really say all that much. Similarly, the novelty of Carla Carla and Donna’s lesbian wedding isn’t enough to make their relationship especially interesting; they’re just a normal couple, with normal problems facing the prospect of committing to each other, and while Gothamist thinks it’s a good thing when gay marriage is treated as it should be – the natural outcome of two people’s love for one another, nothing exceptional – after ignoring the controversial nature of what they’re doing there’s not a whole lot left to say about them.

A couple of problems in the staging (it’s directed by Trip Cullman) also make enjoyment of the show a bit difficult. Occasionally a couple of the characters announce the title of the scene that’s about to begin by addressing the audience directly and abruptly, which is rather jarring and hardly seemed necessary. Even more uncomfortable is the sheer loudness of several of the actors, particularly DeWitt and POurfar, whose characters are often angry with each other. McGinn/Cazale, where the show is, is a small theater, and even if Gothamist hadn’t been sitting close to the front the screaming in the fights would have seemed excessive. Maybe a couple of instances of really powerful vocalizing would have been effective, but for so many scenes one is almost inclined to cover one’s ears, and the shock and power of the anger that induced such screaming just gets diminished.

Still, despite the yelling, the acting is generally very good, especially Mary Schultz’s work; she looks like an angel with her round face and halo of white hair, and she speaks so eloquently and emotionally about the need to simplify life. Her speeches on the clutter that invades our worlds and keeps us from what’s most meaningful are really well-written and wonderfully performed, and they show that there’s a lot to Barb’s character and her predicament. But for the others, even though the actors do their best, they don’t have a lot to work with in the world Bock gives them, and ultimately one leaves the theater feeling that the show’s title describes, in a certainly unintended way, the experience of watching it.

Details: Swimming in the Shallows is at McGinn/Cazale, above the Promenade Theatre at 2162 Broadway (between 76th/77th), until July 17. Shows are Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. 2pm, Sun. 3pm.