Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
I think it is a commonplace that many men measure themselves in competition with other men. Sometimes that is a literal competition, as in athletics, sometimes it is social, as in the various competitions of the workplace, and sometimes it is internal, in those personal measurements of character and relationship by which men assess the relative success of their lives.
In this terse, theatrically accomplished drama by Daniel MacIvor, two men meet in a gymnasium, and in a series of combative rounds, delineate the elements of personality and experience that they have in common, and the distinctions of their individuality. The competition is refereed by an official (Mikano Fukaya) but the competition itself is so entirely between the two men that she often seems as mechanical and objective as the punching bag at the center of the stage, and from which she actually emerges in the play's opening. Much later in the play, when she becomes the central character in one of the histories we hear, that objectification softens. At the same time, her importance to the two men remains an element less about her than about themselves, perhaps the most important event in their competition, and their darkest secret.
Roger Benington is a fine director for this kind of literate, technically sophisticated material, as he proved in last season's superb production of Sarah Kane's "Crave". "Never Swim Alone" employs a great variety of expository techniques, from highly stylized physical gesture to dialogue so tightly bound that the voices merge, as the men merge, and separate in the fine distinctions of their separate identities. Post-modern in its rejection of naturalism for a kind of almost expressionist presentationalism, we never lose the visceral reality of these two men, or the emotional reality of their inner lives.
The two actors, Michael Place and Lathrop Walker, dressed in identical suits and matching briefcases, are both disciplined and accomplished. The spoken language of the play requires them to articulate (within their theatrical and social roles) in formal and artificial ways while still maintaining our recognition that they are distinct and contrasting (as well as combating) individuals. The physical language of the play requires a sense of real, spontaneous combat added to an expressive movement that sustains the fluid, shifting stage picture. Finally, as the battle moves into the decisive rounds of dark secrets we need to accept the depth and significance of these most telling blows. Both actors accomplish the play with an elegant and convincing clarity.
At just an hour, this feels like exactly the right length for this particular work, although a bit short as an evening of theatre. Nonetheless, it is satisfyingly well-accomplished both as text and performance, and the high standards of Washington Ensemble Theatre insure that the audience will see progressive, disciplined and impassioned performance. If you're really interested in an evening of stage as far removed from mistletoe and misty carols as possible, this may be just the show you're looking for. It's a winner.