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Theatre in Review: Modern Swimwear (The Tank)

Frank Zwally and Fig Chilcott. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Nick and Sylvie have a problem; actually, they have dozens, but first things first: During sex, whenever he is about to climax, Nick's mind floods with painful sounds that derail his orgasm. Over the course of a long, long night of fruitless conversation, the situation degenerates; soon, they cannot touch without him being painfully repelled, accompanied by static-like sounds and flickering lights. It's as if a force field is separating them.

If Sylvie were smarter, she would take advantage of the situation and skedaddle. An accomplished swimwear designer, she is unaccountably yoked to this oafish boy-man, who works in a cupcake store while waiting for his trust fund to kick in -- only one more year to go! (The script's character breakdown describes Nick as "Hollywood royalty," but this is one of many points hazily addressed by playwright Caitlin Saylor Stephens.) Nick has the attention span of a flea, is possessive without being affectionate -- among other things, he is jealous of the wounded pigeon that Sylvie adopted and nurtured -- and, of course, there's that little bedroom problem. Not to pile on, but he has also trashed her bedroom and run up stratospheric debt on her credit card (much of it blown on cocaine). At the moment, he is keeping her up in the wee hours, doing his attention-whore thing, on the eve of a major business meeting.

Time for Sylvie to pick up a copy of Women Who Love Too Much? It wouldn't do much good, I fear, as she is blithely unaware of being yoked to a human trainwreck. She even offers to drown out Nick's noises by humming the theme to Swan Lake. The music is a favorite of hers, being "about pretty creatures. Um. Who get hunted." She adds, "It's totally a metaphor for the fashion industry." Then again, in her view, what isn't? "Swimwear is my life," she says, adding that she gives each design a name like Mimi, because "I think of them as women." Waxing philosophical, she says, "This collection will tell [buyers] they should be thinking about the suit. And the skin that the suit sits on. And the bone that the skin sits on. And the blood that the skin contains. And the organs that are swimming in the blood." That should knock Jantzen for a loop.

The appearance of Titu, a server with a degree in neoclassical literature yet trapped in a job that amounts to indentured servitude, reveals the play to be a bleak triptych of capitalism in the twenty-first century. Nick is an infantilized child of wealth, utterly without thought or ambition, joylessly gorging himself on cheap pleasures yet functionally impotent. Sylvie is so absorbed in her career that she can't see the personal disaster unfolding in front of her. Titu is an overeducated wage slave, toiling without prospects of advancement. Fair enough, but if you're going to offer such a grim assessment, the people onstage ought to be -- at the very least -- a little bit interesting. Aside from a violent finale (set, in a typical bit of sledgehammer irony, to "You Light Up My Life"), the characters give up their secrets in the first few minutes, leaving us with nothing to do but watch them go around in circles.

A little leavening humor would help, but, sadly, crudity prevails here. When Sylvie, looking out a window, comments on the beauty of the stars, Nick replies, "I looked at them my whole life and all I see are just some dicks in the sky." Confronted with his prodigal spending, Nick protests, "I'll pay you the fuck back." Sylvie, fed up, replies, "With what? Chlamydia?" The only really funny moment comes when Sylvie concludes that Nick is not "boyfriend material." Really? When did you first notice?

Under Meghan Finn's direction, the actors do their best with this easily dismissible crew. Frank Zwally comes across best as Nick, perhaps because the character's intentions are so obvious; if Fig Chilcott seems at sea as Sylvie, I don't blame her one bit. As Titu, Chad Pierre Vann delivers his set piece well enough. Far more effective is the production's design. Christopher and Justin Swader's boutique hotel interior is filled with convincing details including chic chandeliers, aggressively floral wallpaper, and a roomy bathroom. Sarah Johnston's lighting makes good use of onstage practical units to create a late-night atmosphere. Marcelo AƱez's sound design is inventive at evoking the noises that torment Nick in moments of intimacy. Patricia Marjorie's costumes include a number of selections from Sylvie's collection, attesting to her skills as a designer.

This one however, is a bit of a slog, obvious in its conclusions, derisive of its characters, and deficient in wit. The stage is populated with straw people, ripe for easy condemnation; by the time the action reached its horrible conclusion, I was ready for early checkout. --David Barbour

(24 January 2023)

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