Saturday, November 11, 2017

JACK GOES BOATING: Sweet and Quirky Romantic Comedy Accentuated with Reggae and Ganja

A continuous waft of marijuana smoke and the sounds of reggae suffuse The Seeing Place Theater's production of Bob Glaudini's 2007 offbeat romantic comedy Jack Goes Boating at the Paradise Factory. But what at first appears to be a tale of a couple of stoner dudes and the women who put up with them proves to be much more, a quirky and affectionate play about two couples trying to fumble their way through - as one of the women puts it - “a lot of good things, and a lot of things you wouldn't wish on your enemy." 

Jack Goes Boating was first produced by the Labyrinth Theater Company ten years ago with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, but it has not been widely performed since then. It's a treat, then, to see the fine job The Seeing Place has done with capturing both the play's neurotic humor and its heartfelt tenderness, in an intimate setting that leaves you feeling as though you were eavesdropping on the lives of the characters.  

This production marks a departure for The Seeing Place, a company best known for its often visceral presentations of tough and challenging works by playwrights ranging from Shakespeare to Marsha Norman, Rebecca Gilman, and Sam Shepard. Their forays into comedy have been few, and have mostly focused on the dark (Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman) or the absurd (Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros). So, yes, Jack Goes Boating is not their usual fare. Nevertheless, it is one they have embraced with the same "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach that has marked all of their work over the past eight years, and the cast of four more than meets the demands of this gentler piece.

At opening, we meet Clyde (Juan Cardenas) and Jack (Brandon Walker), friends and co-workers in a limousine service run by Jack's uncle. Jack lives in his uncle's basement, and his biggest ambition is to land a job with New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority. For his part, Clyde has been unable to get past a long-ago period of infidelity by his partner Lucy (Candice Oden). Much of what we learn about the two men comes about during episodes of vaping and drinking and even some snorting, all set to a reggae beat; Jack is especially fond of "By the Rivers of Babylon" a recording of which often soothes his troubled soul in times of stress.  
Brandon Walker and Juan Cardenas
Photo by Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia

It's easy enough to mark these guys as clichéd models of arrested development, until we see them interact with the women in their lives. Lucy and Connie (Erin Cronican, who also directs) work together for an outfit that markets grief seminars for the newly bereaved. The pairing of Jack and Connie is, basically, a set-up by the other two, who think they might hit it off.

Candice Oden and Erin Cronican
Photo by Russ Roland

The heart of the play lies in the slowly warming relationship between Connie and Jack. This is challenging for both characters, each of them vulnerable for different reasons. Their slow dance toward each other requires a great deal of care. Connie, whose experiences with men have been difficult, is especially fragile in all this. 

For Jack, the possibility of a serious relationship is marked by deep-set insecurity, giving Mr. Walker the opportunity to tackle a different sort of role from the boldly assertive characters he has played in the past. Here he does an outstanding job of capturing Jack’s fear of doing the wrong thing with Connie. His scenes with Ms. Cronican are as gentle and tender as any I’ve seen on stage, emanating from a great well of trust. Hard to fake when your audience is seated no more than a couple of feet away.  

One of the pleasures of serial theatergoing (I see some 200 productions a year and review most of them for Upstage-Downstage or for another theater website) is the chance to poke around into some off-the-main-drag theaters of New York City, into the domain of some truly wondrous and adventuresome independent theater companies, collectively referred to as Off Off Broadway. 

Unfortunately, for reasons usually having to do with finances, many such companies come and go. Not so with The Seeing Place, which seems to find the way to keep things going year after year and production after production, while maintaining a ridiculously low ticket price. Going through my past reviews, I was surprised to see I've covered 16 of their productions, each of them showing a commitment to bringing something new to the table (otherwise, why bother?) Color me impressed, and let me urge you to check them out for yourself.  


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.