Somewhere Under the Radar, a Discovery Awaits

By Jason Zinoman

In “Never Swim Alone,” a dazzlingly entertaining portrait of male one-upmanship that reveals the New York International Fringe Festival at its very best, Daniel MacIvor took what could have been an ordinary tragedy involving two highly competitive American men and a dead girl, and scrambled it. The end became the beginning, the beginning the end, and the middle turned into a boxing match in which battles over careers, sexual endowment and real estate (“I heard you rent”) are organized in rounds refereed by a woman in a blue bathing suit.

The result is a 45-minute triumph of formal experimentation that is slyly witty, unexpectedly suspenseful, timeless as the battle of the sexes and as quick and forceful as a heavyweight’s jab.

When it opened at the Fringe in 1999, “Never Swim Alone,” which has been brought back for a run in honor of the festival’s 10-year anniversary, drew sold-out audiences and became only the second show in the history of the Fringe Festival to transfer (the first was “Last Train to Nibroc”). Before “Urinetown” moved Off Broadway, it was arguably the biggest hit in the history of the Fringe.

Since then, hardly any playwright has been as prolific. Neil LaBute, who shares Mr. MacIvor’s brisk, spare style and a professional interest in what goes bump in the night, might be his closest competition. But while other workaholics produce the kind of uneven work that suggests writer’s block might be of some benefit, Mr. MacIvor, who also acts, directs, makes movies and, inevitably, blogs (danielmacivor.com), is remarkably consistent. About once a year, a tautly written, ingeniously constructed and teasingly mysterious new play emerges with his name on it.

So how come you’ve probably never heard of him? He has something of a cult following downtown, where most of his shows have been performed in theaters like P.S. 122. But Mr. MacIvor, 43, who was born in Nova Scotia and is better known in Canada, has never received a production in one of the large or even medium-size nonprofit theaters in New York, let alone on Broadway. He has had seven plays produced in Manhattan, most of which received positive reviews, yet he still qualifies for the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, which is to present his next drama, “A Beautiful View,” in January. What does a guy have to do to get above the radar?

It may be the case that Mr. MacIvor, whose minor-key tales from the dark side can be emotionally cool and occasionally schematic, just doesn’t sell tickets. I once talked to a producer of a downtown theater that was presenting one his shows, who told me bluntly: “He puts on a great show. We got good reviews and no one came.”

Also, size matters. Mr. MacIvor doesn’t write plays that naturally belong in 1,000-seat theaters. In general, they are short, quiet and highly self-conscious affairs with few actors, often just one, speaking straight at the audience.

Judging by his austere, streamlined aesthetic — apparent even in his titles, like “See Bob Run” and “In on It,” which don’t waste a syllable — you might call Mr. MacIvor the quintessential Fringe playwright, though that might sound like an insult. (Technically, he has only had two plays produced at the Fringe, “Never Swim Alone” and “See Bob Run.”) An intimate black box is a perfect setting to tell his puzzle-like dramas, which require active listening to keep up.

It’s no accident that Da Da Kamera, his Toronto-based company with a name that combines Russian and Latin, translates to “Yes Yes the Small Room.”

“Never Swim Alone,” which is being presented at the Actors’ Playhouse through Sunday, when the Fringe Festival ends, has a set consisting of three chairs, a sheet and a whistle. Timothy P. Jones staged the original 1999 production, a job Mr. MacIvor takes on with the new version, but he has made only minimal changes to the script and direction.

Douglas Dickerman and John Maria do reprises of their fierce, muscular performances as Bill and Frank, glad-handing businessmen who take turns charming the audience and putting each other down (“Are you thinner? Must just be your hair”).

Mr. MacIvor interrupts the macho posturing with bits of plot spoken straightforwardly by a mostly silent woman, here played by the sprightly Susan Louise O’Connor, who has made a career out of acting in Mr. MacIvor’s plays.

The play begins with her dead body on the floor and proceeds to investigate how she got there. This is a characteristic stratagem of Mr. MacIvor, who has always operated on the assumption that the scariest part of a scene is when the audience is waiting to see a murder, not when it happens. So he often dispenses with the dirty deed up front.

“Monster” and “Cul-de-Sac” — two creepy nonlinear solo shows that he created with Daniel Brooks and performed himself — open with a man getting killed. Even his most recent New York play, “Marion Bridge,” a poignant and well-made family drama about three melancholy sisters living in Nova Scotia, features a dead body in the other room: their mother’s on both counts.

That empathetic play, which was given a sensitive production at Urban Stages in New York last fall starring Ms. O’Connor, is as well made, naturalistic and feminine as “Never Swim Alone” is coolly nonlinear, abstract and masculine.

What unifies Mr. MacIvor’s work is its crisp, cleanly shaped sentences, filled with jargon, cliché and other reminders of the way people actually talk. But since his New York debut at the Fringe seven years ago, Mr. MacIvor has demonstrated a remarkable range. He has written convincingly about men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and with “Marion Bridge” he showed that he could write more than just monologues.

He may continue opening up his aesthetic with “His Greatness,” a forthcoming three-character drama about the last days — there’s death again — of a Southern playwright. It will have a reading in the fall at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

Mr. MacIvor is continuing to experiment — but with a more conventional, perhaps more mature form, the kind of drama that gets produced by artistic directors at established New York theaters who have ignored him in the past. The question is, will they take notice?

“Never Swim Alone” continues through Sunday at Actors’ Playhouse, 100 Seventh Avenue South, at Fourth Street, Greenwich Village; (212) 279-4488,fringenyc.org.

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