SoHo Playhouse, 1.5 Vimdam St., off Sixth Avenue, (212)239-4200.
There are three people. Two of them are young corporate execs, dressed almost identically -glad-handing, insincere types who enter from the rear of the theater and shake our hands, thanking us for showing up.
The third is a girl, who lies apparently dead on stage at the foot of a lifeguard’s chair. Our hotshots remove the towel from her body, and she comes to life, sporting a blue bathing suit and mounting the chair to serve as referee in 13 rounds of stylized competition the two macho types engage in.
That’s the structure of “Never Swim Alone,” a 60- minute 1987 play by Canadian writer Daniel MacIvor which is getting, at the hands of director Timothy P, Jones, a sharp, cruel production at the SoHo Playhouse. Toronto-based MacIvor is an interesting figure -a prolific playwright and a film actor who starred in last year’s “Beefcake” and this year’s “The Five Seasons.” He plays- and creates -fairly creepy types and boasts of his aEnities with the dark side of life.
‘Never Swim Alone” is an early work -it treats life as a winner-take-all competition grounded in Nietzsche, and expressing itself in everything from the color of neckties to corpses.
“The girl,” played brilliantly with amused sympathy for the quarreling males by Susan O’Connor, declares a winner at the end of each round.
Both guys are tremendous. The smooth and glib John Maria is Frank, an excessive macho type with a superior background and a trophy wife. The more uncertain Bill -uncertain in some areas only, such as height -is Douglas Dickerman, determined to push his advantage where it lies.
Their conflicts -for the most part not physical – include “Round 2: Uniform, ” in which they boast of their identical blue suits. They often speak the identical words, only differentiating themselves when they have to.
They pretend to be caring friends. They claim, in “Round 4: Friendly Advice, ” to like homes and fishing more than the other.
In “Round 6: Members Only, ” they stop making phone calls only when the girl has to judge a penis competition between them.
In the dead center of the play, “half-time,” the girl takes us back to a race the three of them indulged in one afternoon of adolescence. It ended tragically, and served somehow -it’s never clear how- to shape the events of today.
Later, the contest resumes, turning nastier as Frank insists on the class differences that separate him from his best friend, and as Bill lets slip a story of Frank’s wife ‘s adultery with their boss.
The girl’s long-ago fate grows more and more insistent, more and more present, and the present conflict features guns, only one of which is supposed to fire.
Do the two stories -the old tale of the girl and the latest account of corporate rivalry -really go together?
Not really. The play is an early and almost abstract work, whose theme was much better expressed in Neil LaBute’s” In the Company of Men. ”
But, granted its failings, “Never Swim Alone” gets a chilling, exciting production that expresses an amusing and awful vision of life.