Aurora Theatre's see-worthy romantic comedy, Jack Goes Boating
Yeah, it's a big one "going boating" for the working-class castaways in New Yorker Bob Glaudini's 2007 Jack Goes Boating, a surprisingly poignant comedy now making a strong Bay Area debut at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre. Who would propose such a thing lightly? The word even sounds funny, at least in the mouths of the three friends assembled in the scene longstanding couple Clyde (Gabriel Marin) and Lucy (Amanda Duarte), and Clyde's best friend and perennial bachelor Jack (Danny Wolohan). Their tongues trip unfamiliarly on the "t" like it was a pinky finger extending suddenly from their coffee hand.
The two relationships at the center of Jack Goes Boating one very tentatively setting forth, the other possibly foundering after several years make for less than smooth sailing, plot-wise, but a class act all around, especially as delivered by director Joy Carlin's excellent ensemble. And yes, the aquatic metaphors are heavy in the mix, as Jack, with his friends' encouragement, makes it his mission to finally woo and win a love of his own. That would be Connie (Beth Wilmurt), a mortician's assistant and, presumably, boating enthusiast whom senior colleague Lucy and Clyde have helpfully pointed in Jack's direction.
An aging, bashful, lifelong single guy turned dedicated stoner of the reggae-saturated "positive vibes" school, Jack's vaguely embarrassing enthusiasm for Rastafarianism smacks of the quiet desperation of the well-meaning dork, especially as visually crowned by a budding nimbus of white-guy dreads. But it also points to a crucial motive in Jack's fledgling love life, namely some sort of anchor of decency and solace in a sea of urban chaos and confusion, a context made palpable in the comically supple Wolohan's charmingly perplexed, almost painful determination as Jack.
It's clear early on that some sacrifice is in order. To make everything turn out right for Jack and Connie's little borough romance, it behooves Jack to first learn how to swim (Clyde to the rescue: when he's not driving a limo like coworker Jack, he's a swimming instructor). Moreover, owing to a little misunderstanding on Connie's part, Jack needs to learn how to cook (Clyde to the rescue again, this time by suggesting Jack study with an assistant pastry chef Clyde knows to have been lately and uncomfortably acquainted with his own dear Lucy). Clyde's attempts to do good are themselves problematic, however, having at points a competing agenda of their own (conflicting motives Marin plays to superb effect), centered on the baggage he and Lucy (a feisty and sharp-witted match in Duarte's terrific characterization) have accumulated over many years. In fact, as Jack slowly wades into the deep end of the pool, literally and figuratively, Clyde and Lucy's increasingly obvious dirty laundry begins to look like unintentional warning flags.
But Jack perseveres. Not yet at the oars, he's nonetheless set a firm course already. He's on board for this love thing. And, according to Glaudini, it's as much a matter of self-survival as self-sacrifice. His swimming lessons with Clyde inch him ever so gently toward the deep end of the pool. But in a sense he's already there, surrounded by the vortex of urban stress and mayhem as well as his own whirling emotions, all of it manifest in the predatory competition of other men more often than not reduced to synecdoche in the dialogue: an aggressive erection on the subway, a stray hand on an unsuspecting breast, a philandering cannoli and his own explosive temper. It's the dicey but also ennobling power of love that makes Jack and Connie (whose own neurotic complexity gets its full due in Wilmurt's shrewdly unnerving yet sympathetic characterization) able to navigate these waters finally, rather than merely treading them in a self-induced fog of pot smoke or "positive vibes."
Veteran Bay Area actor-director Carlin guides this beautifully designed production with sure comic instincts, making for an enjoyable ride all the way. But she and her cast also know the play gathers much of its momentum from deeper, darker waters just below its romantic comedy surface.
JACK GOES BOATING
Through July 19
Wed-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 and 7 p.m., $28-$50
Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, Berk.
(510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org