By Charles Brousse
Rachel Bonds’ Swimmers, which just began a three-week world-premiere run at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company (MTC), adds to a lengthy list of plays that question the psychological effects of America’s capitalist system. The exemplar is Arthur Miller’s 1948 epic Death of a Salesman, but from Eugene O’Neill to the present there have been many others. Their common theme is that, despite public pronouncements of belief in the golden promise of an American Dream, ordinary people feel isolated and lonely when they realize that they are cogs in an economic machine that is designed to serve the privileged few.
Lately—as seen on stage, in films, television and in our current election battles—what began as a minority view (mostly among intellectuals) has spread to the commons, bringing with it growing resentment, confusion and dystopian fears about the imminent collapse of civilization as we know it.
This is the theatrical landscape that Bonds explores in Swimmers, but it’s not the gloomy portrait one might expect. She writes with a sensitive touch that, along with the pain, also acknowledges the inescapable humanity of her characters and the humor that accompanies their angst. Mix empathy and laughs with a light splash of existential dread and you have a pretty potent dramatic framework.
Except that Swimmers really is neither drama nor comedy in the usual definition of those terms. There is virtually no plot. No final resolution of conflict. Instead, we get a series of brief scenes in which the play’s 11 characters, two or three at a time, reveal the sources of their anxieties. We in the audience are essentially unisex father confessors, listening intently as they struggle to find the truth of their predicament (not all do), but otherwise limited to watching them go on their way toward an uncertain future.
The play takes place in what the program simply describes as “An office building in an industrial park.” Because two characters commute from Readington, New Jersey, I suspect that it’s one among a multitude of such parks along the Hudson River opposite Manhattan.
Tom (Aaron Roman Weiner), already deeply affected by the death of his wife two years earlier, is further depressed when the publisher considering a book she had written calls to say it’s a go. Moodily questioning the meaning of life, he is further jolted by a large highway sign along his morning commute that gives a precise date for the End of the World. Charlene (Sarah Nina Hayon) is going through a nasty divorce and has a teenage daughter who hates her. Vivian (Kristin Villanueva) is an attractive but insecure young intern who, after telling her co-workers that she has been inappropriately touched by a high-level executive, declines to report it because she fears being misunderstood. Randy (Max Rosenak) escapes his job frustrations with marijuana and advises others to do the same. He also adds to the general concern about a forthcoming Rapture by describing his fantasy encounter with a strange, witch-like woman.
Priya (Jolly Abraham) has a candy addiction and a crush on Tom (unrequited). Bill (Ryan Vincent Anderson) is an African-American super-achiever who is unsettled by the confluence of his engagement to a beautiful woman and promotion up the management ladder to a high position in the Charlotte, North Carolina branch. Farrah (Jessica Bates), who competed for the North Carolina job, is jealous of Bill’s good fortune. Yuri (Brian Herndon) is a Russian immigrant who, fearful at being an outsider, is determined not to be noticed. Dennis (Adam Andrianopoulos) is defensive about being grossly overweight. George (Charles Shaw Robinson) is The Boss. He likes to hug the girls tightly—for their own good, of course. And, finally, there’s Walter (L. Peter Callender) the company janitor who, having solved his drinking problem years earlier, offers good advice and cheer to everyone concerned.
While some may find Bond’s confessional approach simplistic or repetitive, the quality of MTC’s acting ensemble combines with realistic dialogue and Mike Donahue’s solid direction to offer a rewarding evening of theater.
NOW PLAYING: Swimmers runs through March 27 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; [email protected]