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Review: Modern Swimwear Reveals the Trust Fund Boyfriend From Hell

Two New Yorkers check in to a hotel in Caitlin Saylor Stephens's latest drama.

Frank Zwally and Fig Chilcott star in Caitlin Saylor Stephens's Modern Swimwear, directed by Meghan Finn, at the Tank.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

The Internet insult du jour is "nepo baby," which refers to the child of a rich and powerful person who uses their famous last name to secure a career in a notoriously competitive industry, like entertainment. This obviously engenders a lot of resentment from would-be entertainers who don't have the last name "Apatow." But in defense of nepo babies, at least they work. Caitlyn Saylor Stephens highlights an entirely more sedentary child of privilege in Modern Swimwear, her anxiety-inducing drama now making its world premiere at the Tank.

It's about Sylvie (Fig Chilcott), a women's swimwear designer staying at a fancy New York City hotel the night before a major industry presentation. Making a big splash at the fashion show should be her priority, but her attention is being hijacked by her younger boyfriend, Nick (Frank Zwally). He accidentally set Sylvie's bed on fire in a drug-fueled daze, necessitating the move to the hotel. Nick's dad is a successful songwriter, but lately he cannot touch Sylvie without hearing a cranium-shattering rendition of dad's biggest hit. Sexually frustrated and unable to sleep, he tries to convince Sylvie to go downstairs with him to eat a burger and hit the club. But Sylvie has her eyes on the prize. Nick petulantly wonders why he isn't enough prize for her.

The play is based on the real story of Sylvie Cachay and Nicholas Brooks, which you can read here provided you're not averse to spoilers. Nicholas's father, Joseph, is the composer of "You Light Up My Life," a song made famous in a cover by nepo baby Debby Boone (daughter of Pat) and featured prominently here. The fact that Nick is tortured by the very thing that affords him the lifestyle of a superfluous Russian aristocrat is just the first of many heavy-handed authorial flourishes.

Fig Chilcott plays Sylvie, and Frank Zwally plays Nick in Caitlin Saylor Stephens's Modern Swimwear, directed by Meghan Finn, at the Tank.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Stephens clearly has a lot to say about the unhealthy assumptions in heterosexual relationships, how the burden is often placed on women to become replacement mothers for men who refuse to grow up. Could the song, a soppy ballad to a male savior, represent the dark legacy of toxic masculinity passed from father to son? But Nick's multitudinous flaws (addicted to drugs and porn, simultaneously weak and domineering, helpless and dangerous) begin to feel like so many red herrings — in short, they mirror the confused and contradictory attitude our dominant culture has about sex.

A strange monologue delivered by a bellhop (Chad Pierre Vann) adds an element of the absurd to the proceedings as he waits for a tip like he's waiting for Godot. But its surface-level observations about the tedium and physical stress of real work are not interesting enough to justify the tonal shift. And the final scene verges on camp, rather than the horror that seems intended.

Fortunately, Modern Swimwear is mostly salvaged by director Meghan Finn's first-rate production and strong performances from all three actors. Justin and Christopher Swader deliver the most fully realized set I've ever seen in a Tank production, creating champagne luxury on a beer budget. Even the cheaper elements, like a flimsy sliding door and exposed-brick walls in the bathroom, can be excused as quirky design choices targeted at the rich and tasteless. That's a theme that extends to Patricia Marjorie's costume design (Nick's Louis Vuitton boxer briefs are the indispensable item). Through lighting (Sarah Johnston) and sound (Marcelo Añez), Finn makes Nick's hallucinations frighteningly real.

Fig Chilcott plays Sylvie in Caitlin Saylor Stephens's Modern Swimwear, directed by Meghan Finn, at the Tank.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Most impressive is Zwally, who gives one of the most remarkably repulsive performances of this and several other seasons. Behold as he downs an entire bottle of champagne by himself — "Tastes better from the source," he retorts when Sylvie offers him a glass — discharging a hearty belch before attempting to order cocaine from room service. Every line is a whine, and his permanent slouch betrays a man-child for whom even standing is too much of an exertion. He's unemployed, living in her apartment, and not even in control of the money he stands to inherit (probably for his own good). One might wonder exactly why Sylvie has invited Nosferatu into her house, and why she's waited this long to drive a stake through his heart. Is it true love?

In a crafty performance that conjures the vision of an acrobat spinning plates, Chilcott makes it clear that Sylvie is a striver, determined to carve out a place in the American upper class one way or another. Nick's family connections and his trust fund represent an offer she cannot refuse. We know she's unimpressed with him in the first several minutes, but she's a designer and in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, she's going to make it work. Is she any different than millions of women afraid to walk away from the stability and security of marriage to money? We've heard Nora's door slam, but few of us are willing to follow her out. Even if your husband is a shiftless idiot, you can still find some consolation in his material benefits, right?

Modern Swimwear is the story of that bet gone horribly wrong. But few will stop making it, especially when so many of us paddle furiously just to keep our heads above water.