On paper, Adam Bock's play Swimming in the Shallows (through Mon., March 6; Washington Ensemble Theatre, 800-838-3006, www.washingtonensemble.org) sounds too cute and clever for its own damn good. Three couples, all distinctly young, hip, and well-dressed, get effervescently tangled up in the rigor and surrealism of modern life: dating, love, gay marriage, rampant consumerism, waiting for the bus. One character's trying to quit smoking; another is obsessed with life's accumulation of stuff, in the manner of Andie McDowell's character in sex, lies and videotape. Yet another is in crush with a sexy, swanky shark, itself trapped by the existential dead end of routine aquarium life ("swim. . . swim . . . swim . . . watch out for the glass . . . swim . . . "). Scenes open with titles like "How to quit smoking." The dialogue is clipped and snarky and sharp. Nothing much is at stake. All in all, it sounds like a curtain call for Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda.
Sometimes, though, between idea and execution lies a surprise—or maybe not such a surprise after all. Washington Ensemble Theater has been regularly operating at a high level for the past couple years, straddling with uncommon savvy the middle ground between exuberant youth and hard-earned, hard-nosed sophistication. Usually, you get one or the other, and even WET has been known to veer a bit too close to the smartass flame of easy hipster irony. More often than not, though, this extremely talented, wildly experimental troupe stages productions that are the sine qua non of fringe theater: risky, challenging, fresh, exciting. Swimming, guest directed by Katjana Vadenboncoeur of Seattle Shakespeare Company, is a great example. An absurdist meditation on young urban romance, it's a consistently hilarious sitcom decked out with well-developed, oddball characters and highlighted by a handful of bravura comic passages.
The five-person cast—Elise Hunt, Marc Kenison, Michael Place, Rhonda Soikowski, and Alexandra Tavares—is uniformly superb. Hunt and Soikowski play the engaged lesbian couple, Carla and Barb, and both display a great sense of comic timing and a knack for the small, subtle gestures that define a wishy-washy relationship. They share perhaps the most stunning and outrageous passage in a play full of wonderful moments: a chase scene, rendered in ultra-slow-motion, with Soikowski pursuing Hunt (both in flowing white wedding gowns) for a filched pack of menthol cigarettes. It's the last word on postmodern prenuptial jitters, and it's so funny it hurts.
Tavares plays Donna, the woman worried about all the material junk piling up in her life. Her consumer neurosis is driving a wedge between her and her husband, Bob, well played by Place in one of his two roles. The trio of relationships is rounded out by Nick (Kenison), a young buck who develops a strong attraction to the shark (also Place) at the aquarium where Barb works.
The play doesn't quite live up to its promise of delving into the "shallowness" of contemporary relationships; as social critique, it registers pretty low on the scale. That's OK. Swimming in the Shallows is pure pleasure, sublime comic fluff. It's pretty to look at, too, with a spare and elegant set bathed in an aquamarine glow and framed by receding rectangles that work to compress the depth of field, almost like an optical illusion. Moreover, Swimming is further evidence that the folks at WET are fully in stride and, thanks to their daring and talent, existing at the leading edge of Seattle's fringe theater scene. These people know what they're doing, and they do it with a grace and confidence far beyond their collective years. WET is something special.