Beth Cole, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz,
and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Jack Goes Boating
(© Monique Carboni)
Beth Cole, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz,
and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Jack Goes Boating
(© Monique Carboni)
Adventurous theatergoers never want to miss a LAByrinth Theater Company play, because every one of them seems to offer unexpected surprises. Their productions have been original, physically dynamic, and devoted to solid storytelling. The company's latest outing, Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating, artfully directed by Peter Dubois and featuring a four-person cast headed by Oscar winner (and LAB co-artistic director) Philip Seymour Hoffman, continues to burnish their already glowing reputation.

Unlike many of the company's earlier plays, which were highly dramatic and emotionally intense, Jack Goes Boating is a social comedy with modest ambitions. It's not so much about the thunderous themes of life and death as it is simply about learning how to stay afloat in the deep water of day-to-day living. Told through the interactions of four flawed, but ultimately winning, lower-middle-class New Yorkers, this play is touching and warm-hearted.

Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) are a long-married couple, who initially seem well-adjusted and happy. Lucy has a job for a grief counseling guru where Connie (Beth Cole) has just been hired to work in phone sales. With the help of her husband, Lucy arranges to introduce Connie to their lonely, shy best friend, Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And that's the plot -- except for the details. And life is in the details.

During the course of the play, we learn that Connie is a frightened yet determined woman for whom everything from work to sexual intimacy is difficult. Yet, she perseveres with admirable tenacity. As it turns out, Connie has met her perfect match in Jack, who is too shy to scare her away and too simple to mind her layered neuroses. Both are moving toward love at the same, slow, and careful pace. Their tentative attempts to become closer are as poignant as they are funny. Our laughter, however, is not directed at them, but rather it comes as a sign of gentle understanding of their situation.

Meanwhile, we discover that Lucy has cheated on Clyde in the past. While she believes that they've put her infidelity behind them, Clyde is still harboring hurt feelings. It appears that one couple is heading in one direction while the other is heading in the other. The question is will they crash into each other, derailing both relationships?

Glaudini's play glides effortlessly from the shallow end of the emotional pool to the deep end. A running bit throughout the play has Clyde teaching Jack how to swim so that on the fateful day when he goes boating with Connie - many months down the road from their first encounter -- he won't be afraid of the water. The swimming lessons are thinly disguised metaphors for everything from the confidence to keep trying to a primer on sex. (In addition, the pool, designed by David Korins with lighting by Japhy Weidman, is so deliciously amusing that the audience actually applauded upon seeing this inspired creation.)

Exquisite acting has constantly been a hallmark of the company and this piece is no exception. Hoffman, in a beautifully understated performance, creates a character that can be comically quirky while still being entirely rooted in reality. Ortiz is hilariously bombastic, but his sense of superiority is wonderfully undercut by his genuine love for his wife and his sincere loyalty to Jack. Rubin-Vega gives another of her patented warm-hearted and sexy turns as Lucy, while Cole, though perhaps too overtly attractive for the role of Connie, establishes herself as a formidable actress who can hold her own with the very best.

If the play's climactic scenes veer toward situation comedy -- at its most disappointing, the play goes exactly where you expect it to go -- the characters finally outlast the plot to give the play its winsome pleasure.