Rachel Bonds’ Swimmers, premiering at the Marin Theatre Company under Mike Donahue’s alert direction, is the best of a limited type of play. We might say that it springs from the genre of tiny hurts and humane gestures—the sweet spot between Chekhov and a Hallmark card.
Swimmers follows the travails of 11 workers in what appears to be a growing and successful sales company. They’re all suffering—death, divorce, alcohol, unrequited love. It's a standard list of disappointments. Of course, we know that what these employees truly need is care, and sometimes nothing more than a simple show of concern. Gentleness, in all its guises, is the guiding aesthetic here.
The theme of human disappointment and redemption is usually the province of domestic dramas: all families are cauldrons of low key disasters and the steady love needed to repair them. In shifting the setting from the home to the office, Swimmers reorders our perception of suffering and its remedies. The rhythms of work lack the blunt force trauma of familial relations, and so what we feel is both less fraught but harder to get hold of—this slippery quality lends the play a touch of menace and that's nice.
The play's most unnerving scene is between Vivian (Kristen Villanueva), a young intern who has filed a sexual harassment suit against the COO, and Dennis (Adam Andrianopoulous), an overly friendly and fat executive. Bonds never lets us know anything significant about Dennis or what motivates him. Over the course of the scene, it feels as if he’s trying to entrap Vivian, charm her, and mentor her all at once. That Vivian kind of enjoys these vague entreaties to friendship or more is also without explanation—what is she feeling when she laughs at him with such abandon?
These are mysteries that Bonds never reveals. She forces us to use our imagination and test our own sense of ethics and desire, of whether Vivian should find Dennis’s inappropriate jokes and just-below-the-surface flirting a source of solace or greater anxiety. It’s hard to tell what's happening and so the world becomes more complex and worth thinking about. One might say that the desire to heal and be healed is only truly felt in slight hopes and confused motives. It’s a wonderful scene.
Compare this to Julia Cho’s Aubergine, currently playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That drama has a similar feel. Yet, it’s not nearly as successful or ambitious as what Bonds achieves with Swimmers. Plays like Aubergine—and they are legion—are desperate to usher spiritually damaged people into the ranks of the blessed and healed. It’s a kind of ersatz Christianity for the lazy. Swimmers is sharper and less rote. Yet for all its positive qualities, Bonds' writing suffers from the same need to over explain its way to salvation, even when the results should be tragic, or at least emotionally wrenching. It's amazing how often the dramatist veers from necessary devastations.
So, for instance, Priya, secretly in love with her co-worker Tom, has just come from the dentist where she has two cavities and is teased by another co-worker, Randy, for “eating whole cups full of Reese’s Pieces.” Later, while confessing to Tom that she loves him, she manically eats one after another as he gently rejects her overtures. This should be awful, a minor key version of the Doctor's rejection of Sonya in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But the candy overtakes the scene and the symmetry of the joke (its set up and resolution) turns Priya's despair into a punch line, rather than what it should be—an explosion of feeling and its irresolution.
Throughout, most of Swimmers' architecture trumps character and action, and does so precisely at the moments when Bonds writes with efficiency and clarity. You can sense an artist trying to escape the straight jacket of fine playwriting and slip into more mysterious realms, where salvation, understanding, and healing are not so mechanically achieved, and characters laugh for reasons beyond our understanding, but not our fascination.
I feel haunted by plays like Swimmers -- one might group it with most of the work of Landford Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, A.R. Gurney, and all their ilk -- the gentle ones. These playwrights' desire to find ways to overcome everyday pain is commendable and their work is often wildly popular with audiences. Yet, for my tastes, they explain too much and think and feel too little.
You can sense the lack of trust they have in audiences, as if no moment should go by that isn’t prepared for and explained. Nothing ever just happens. They contain and tame suffering—in homilies, jokes, and the well-worn rhythms of the television sitcom. They demand that we put our imaginations aside, aesthetically, politically, and ethically. But why else gather in a theater?
One could say that Bonds is a promising writer and that would be true—she’s a step up from most of her peers. And yet I keep thinking of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and the terror of the unrequited love that seizes the plain Sonya and wrests her of every hope except death and the promise of God's love and embrace. I'm not asking for or expecting that type of greatness. I just ask that we do not run from it, that we give ourselves the chance to experience the beauty and gentle touch of an unsparing brutality.
Swimmers runs through Sunday, Mar. 27 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. For more information and tickets go to www.marintheatre.org.