Jack Goes Boating, Bob Glaudini’s play now onstage at the Aurora, is a little bit of a double work-buddies comedy—Jack and Clyde drive limo for Jack’s uncle; Lucy supervises Connie, selling grief seminars in a funeral home phone tank—combined with a couples comedy, though these four are no Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice, much less the lost souls of Carnal Knowledge.
There’s a sense of the hybrid about Jack Goes Boating; it never breaks down into its constituent elements, as many contemporary comedies seem to, becoming protracted, live theater versions of TV sketch or situation comedy. Neither does it define an idiosyncratic form of its own.
Most interesting, most important: although Jack operates off a basic premise, a comic situation that develops (if sometimes sideways, even verging on shaggy dog) as well as acquiring tempo and volume by employing running gags and goofy situations that build up, almost vertiginously, the truest humor is conveyed by texture, by the feel of the characters and events, a kind of studied over-familiarity that becomes at times an almost grotesque strangeness, without losing a basic warmth, its humanity.
There’s a tradition—or perhaps overlapping traditions—in American humor for something like the kind of tone Jack achieves, maybe closest to the work of two writers who were inspired by Sherwood Anderson, started out with stories about the children of ethnic immigrants, then went into theater or screenwriting, living the lives of Hollywood or New York celebrity or professional: William Saroyan and John Fante.
Glaudini himself has worked as a director. In his program bio, he singles out playwrights whose work he has directed who all espouse one or another form of absurdism or alienation: Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Brecht, Pinter, Sam Shepard. Joy Carlin, who directed the Aurora show with both a light touch and sense of focus amid the attention deficiency of this menage, has directed a few absurd comedies, and one by Arthur Miller, The Price at the Aurora, which both incorporated and scrutinized absurd humor. It would seem Glaudini would be a director’s playwright in a field that often puts the director on the spot.
The casting works very well: Danny Wolohan as deadpan, obtuse Jack, naive to a fault in his determination to be somehow positive; Beth Wilmurt, who took on a similar role under Carlin’s direction in Bosoms and Neglect at Aurora last year, here playing Connie, as intense and eccentric—and absent-minded—a loner as Jack.
The two are brought together by the very different, long-bonded (perhaps in dysfunctionality) and more urban, if not exactly urbane Clyde. Gabriel Marin takes the role and poses his swaybacked orations on life with a vertiginous Body English; it’s great physical comedy. His better half by mutual consent, Lucy—played with pert layers of contradictory mood and wilfullness by Amanda Duarte—is the one mover-and-shaker on the scene, though whether she’s steaming straight ahead is hard to catch; still, her wake’s a formidable one. Their constant activity and verbosity prove counterpoint to Connie and Jack’s diffidence, and give the play much of its atmosphere.
Atmosphere’s the thing, and a tangible part of it is hempen; one running, situational gag produces bigger—and presumably better—means to smoke. Another, really the axis or crux of the play, is Jack’s determination, assisted by an unlikely mentor in Clyde and the unseen third—or is it fifth?—wheel of “The Cannoli,” to master swimming so he can take Connie boating, study cuisine so he may cook for her, which she swears no other man has.
Things go surprisingly well, though the coefficient to easy hopefulness is sudden disaster. A few of these moments cut through the genially nutty sociality of this unlikely little community, all towards middle age—will they see it through together or alone?—while doggedly displaying badges of protracted post-adolescence, against the background of New York, where every gesture or recognition seems “named into anonymity,” as poet Lew Welch put it.
Melpomene Katakalos’ set, lit by Jim Cave, and Chris Houston’s sound design and music anchor this loopy tale, yet at moments, render it fabulous.
JACK GOES BOATING
8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through July 19 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison. $28-$50. 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org.