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SWIMMING WITH THE LITTLE FISH
picture - Jack Goes BoatingTheatre Review
by Harvey Perr
Jack Goes Boating
now playing at the Public Theatre’s Martinson Hall
currently extended through April 29, 2007
Jack is an ordinary guy, the kind of ordinary guy most playwrights would steer clear of, because it is difficult to imagine what one could say about such an ordinary guy that hasn’t been said before. He is a charmless and diffident idler who loves reggae and actually listens to the lyrics, and who hides, under his cap, as many Rasta dreadlocks as his straight, dank blonde hair can accommodate. This may very well be the only thing that separates Jack from all the other ordinary guys who stroll the streets and ride the subways of New York City in aimless pursuit of what life might conceivably mean. Two other things you should know about Jack is that he can’t swim and he can’t cook. But, if he is to win the heart of Connie, the young woman his married friends, Clyde and Lucy, have set him up with, he must learn how to do both. You see, he has promised to take Connie boating come summer next, and, really, how can one risk going boating if one hasn’t mastered the art of swimming? And when, teetering skittishly on the edge of Connie’s hospital bed, he promises Connie a big dinner when she’s out of the hospital, she is so thrilled by the idea of having a man make dinner for her that he can’t quite own up to her that that wasn’t exactly what he had on his mind. So he takes swimming lessons from Clyde and cooking lessons from The Cannoli, an assistant to the pastry chef in a downtown hotel. Jack may not show too much of what we call initiative, but he is game.
The other thing that separates Jack from the other ordinary guys he represents is that he is played, in Bob Glaudini’s “Jack Goes Boating,” by Philip Seymour Hoffman, an anything but ordinary actor. In his first swimming lesson, going from the shallow end into deeper waters, Hoffman turns this episode into a deliciously funny comic tour de force. And, better yet, it is sheer bliss when, in the second act, he fully absorbs the cooking techniques he has been studying, and revels in the pleasure he realizes he is getting from his studies. In that moment, Hoffman joins the short list of actors who could read the telephone book and thoroughly engage us. Hoffman, in brief, is wonderful, and any opportunity to see him in action is an opportunity worth savoring. But, as good as Hoffman is, Glaudini has written a chamber piece for four actors, not a star vehicle, and his play is equally well served by the other three actors – Beth Cole as the lonely and fearful Connie, and John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega as the couple who help Jack but could use a bit of help themselves – who comprise the cast.
The play, which charts the course of two relationships, one that is slowly falling apart and one that is slowly coming together, is told in brief staccato scenes that do not so much flow into each other as jar us into each accelerating mood, and its language has all those stutters and stammers we associate with the way real people speak but which, in its verbal rhythms, turns out to be highly stylized. Glaudini’s unique voice, quirky and sly, first wormed its way into this reviewer’s heart a few years back in “The Identical Same Temptation,” which, under Glaudini’s direction, walked a tightrope between hilarity and heartbreak without missing a single beat. The Labyrinth Theater Company, a fertile haven for interesting writers, produced his next play – “Dutch: Heart of Man” – in which many actors kept moving busily around without getting anywhere, and what was so natural in “Temptation” seemed forced and strained in these different surroundings.
“Jack Goes Boating,” with its little epiphanies and small grace notes, may not be a marked improvement over the promise of “Temptation,” but it is both looser and more tightly knit than “Dutch,” and reflects a happier collaboration between the playwright and the Labyrinth Theater Company. All the charm of Glaudini’s wayward style is maintained in Peter Dubois’ direction. David Korins has designed another of his eloquent sets and has particular fun with an indoor swimming pool. Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes breathe as much recognizable life into the play’s characters as the actors do. But the play’s greatest virtue is that, while Glaudini knows all about what destroys relationships, he also, bless his frayed lace heart, still believes in love. And he has written the loveliest sex scene, played with the utmost delicacy by Hoffman and Cole, and staged with surgical skill by Dubois, which will forever stay vivid in the audience’s collective memory. And Jack, ordinary guy though he may be, becomes, in the play’s final lyrical minutes, very much a singular creation.
 
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