In Never Swim Alone, currently running at the Old Marquer Theatre, a girl challenges two boys to a swimming race across the bay. The boys, a couple of gawky best friends, accept, and when she eventually falls behind, they have to make a choice: Save her or continue the competition. The answer isn't as obvious as it may seem in this one-act presented by The Elm Theatre.
The race serves as a catalyst, but the show centers on the contest between Frank (Garrett Prejean) and Bill (Nicholas Stephens), who are dressed in suits and ties. Through a series of challenges such as "power lunch" — where they try to intimidate each other over a restaurant meal — and "best son," the two battle over who is superior. In each round, the Referee (Tenea Intriago) blows a whistle to signal which man has won the round or hit below the belt.
At first, the men seem like carbon copies of each other. Their dialogue overlaps, and often they deliver monologues simultaneously. Prejean is unnervingly intense, and when the actors directly address the audience, his gaze is manic, especially when he nears a breakdown. In moments of bravado, Prejean pulls back to show the fear that ultimately drives Frank. Though slightly more likable, Bill also is pushed to the brink by his ambitions. Stephens matches Prejean's force, and his emotional depth helps make Bill endearing. Together, the two are explosive and fierce in their cut-throat decision making.
At its core, Never Swim Alone explores the effects of capitalism and competition in the United States. The two men seem like American male archetypes, but their facades quickly crack under pressure. The show lays out contemporary anxieties about the desire to get ahead. The system, the show argues, forces people to care only about themselves.
Throughout the contest, the Referee sits in an elevated lifeguard chair and issues judgments. Designed by Phil Cramer, the set's minimalist quality, featuring a chair and a sand pile to indicate the beach, becomes haunting as it illustrates the difference between a carefree summer and the adult world. Intriago's calm demeanor balances the show's energy. There's a sadness to the Referee as she rings the bell for each round. Intriago gives a nuanced performance that keeps her grounded. When and we later find out why the Referee has ultimate power over these men, it's Intriago's earnestness that makes us feel the impact.
From the opening scene, director Joanna Russo's Never Swim Alone questions the social systems that surround and control us. It's a probing and well-acted deconstruction of modern economic decisions and expectations. In life, there are no easy ways out of corners we're backed into, and this show doesn't try to offer any.