Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Buddy System

"Never Swim Alone" The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, part of the 2006 NY Fringe Festival. September 16, 2006

Boys will be boys, it's been said. Sometimes that can mean the frat boys from "Animal House" and sometimes it can mean Leopold and Loeb.

Daniel McIvor gives us something in between as we explore the relationship between Bill and Frank in this revival of his 1999 Fringe entry, "Never Swim Alone." Simply staged for this 10th anniversary of the Fringe Festival, it seems a quintessential Fringe-type show - small cast, simple costuming, sets and lighting, and a script that may not be quite as edgy as it was intended to be.

Bill and Frank have known each other for all of their lives. Best friends from childhood all the way through school. As they grow up, their friendship becomes a rivalry. Mr. McIvor has used an effective technique in his play that has the two (now men) speaking simultaneously as they talk about themselves and each other. More often than not, not only are the speaking simultaneously, they speak identical dialogue in unison. This communicates a bond that ties them together, whether they like it or not. The third character in the play is billed as the Referee, a woman wearing a swimsuit with a whistle on a lanyard. She announces each round of this competition Bill and Frank have undertaken to win the hearts of the audience, calling foul on occasion when one or the other cross an inappropriate line. She also plays the role of a young girl, whose innocent flirtation with them as boys, results in the transformation of the relationship from callow friendship to a series of heated and sometimes cruel competitions. The goal of each competition, as we learn was started with the girl's innocent invitation of "race you to the point" is who will be "first."

Bill and Frank, at a certain level, are interchangeable. "Blue suit, white shirt, silk tie, black socks, black shoes, black briefcase" they announce as they describe themselves in unison. In this first round of their competition, further inspection reveals that Frank has on not black socks, but blue socks. Bill is the winner of round one and gets to speak next. Like their friendship, the nature of the competitions get more and more personal, and more and more vicious as the play progresses.

As Frank, Douglas Dickerman is adorably smug and self-righteous, engaging the audience very quickly with boyish good looks. Mr. Dickerman has the difficult role of being the beautiful monster, but never quite manages to get the monster part across. Even his most cruel actions never quite bite as hard or cut as deep as they should.

In the role of Bill, John Maria gives a subtle portrayal of a man terrified of losing to someone he's always thought of as his equal. Mr. Maria blusters and puffs in Bill's efforts to keep up with Frank. His Frank is someone whose pain you can identify with, but doesn't raise feelings of pity for him.

Not so subtly, Mr. McIvor (who also directs this production) has given away the end of the competition by having Bill in a foot cast throughout the show. The catalyst for the degradation of the relationship is the girl, which is telegraphed fairly early on. It's only a matter of time before he reveals that during the "race to the point" the girl drowns when the boys are more focused on beating each other in the race. Bill shows remorse, but Frank can't let himself do the same. Frank's victories, as you may well imagine become more and more hollow, as he and Bill nurse the wounds they have inflicted on each other. The writing concepts Mr McIvor employs are interesting, but there were many times when he seemed more caught up in form over substance. The simultaneous dialogue and biting exchanges only reveal that the competition is bitter, but doesn't enlighten.

As for production values, this was a typical Fringe show performed in a black box space, using three black stools. The only distractions were Frank's references to wearing a blue suit that was clearly an ill-fitting grey pinstripe.

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