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.