Plenty of New Yorkers are familiar with plays performed in parks, bars, or museums. But a play in a pool? This is Not a Theatre Company’s Pool Play 2.0 is just that, taking place in an indoor swimming pool at Waterside Plaza Swim and Health Club (it should be noted that This is Not a Theatre Company is known for its experimental approaches to performance space). Each audience member receives a poncho upon entering the warm, chlorine-infused pool space, and is invited to pick any bath mat as a seat; at the pool’s edge, the audience's feet dangle into the water. The uniqueness of Pool Play 2.0 does not end with its nontraditional performance space, however. The play's text, its staging, and the committed actors collaborate to provide a fun yet thought-provoking treatment of something nearly everyone has experienced: a day at the pool.
Pool Play 2.0 exemplifies the kind of thoughtful playwriting that ponders a singular, universal concept so deeply and from so many angles that the subject matter becomes almost mystical in its metaphorical relevance to humanity. The universal concept at play in Jessie Bear and Charles Mee’s Pool Play is, obviously, the swimming pool. Bear and Mee’s text unfolds over the course of several discrete chapters (separated in performance by dance interludes), revealing the American swimming pool to be a site of bodily shame, racial anxiety, ruthless competition, class distinction, childhood nostalgia, and much more. These portions of narrative stand alone as monologues or partner scenes, but the common theme of swimming pools and water is present enough in each vignette to give the whole piece a sense of unity.
At other times, the pool becomes a behemoth bathtub shared by two siblings, or a fish pondering the deep sea. Without reducing its content to cliché, Pool Play 2.0 gazes into the watery depths of its subject matter, but also softens focus to reveal our own individual and societal reflections dancing upon the surface.
Though Mee and Bear’s text is supremely engaging, pondering even a time in the near future where water as a natural resource is scarce and pools exist as holograms, Pool Play 2.0 also excels in its performance elements. As both choreographer and dancer, Jonathan Matthews delights in a series of lyrical segments separating each narrative vignette. Clad in a striped, vintage-inspired swimming costume and a series of whimsical swimming caps, he cannot help but make a viewer smile as he evokes grace, silliness, frustration, and a host of other evocative glimpses into the wet and wonderful world of swimming pools. Matthews’ dance sequences blend nicely into the scenes performed by the rest of the talented ensemble, who deftly transition between a wide variety of characters such as penguins, children in the bathtub, competitive athletes, and millionaires.
The staging by director Erin B. Mee carefully frames each of the show’s diverse themes. Perhaps even more impressively, Mee has taken great care to make sure her actors are audible and visible. With the enormous complications presented by having a swimming pool as a stage, this is no small feat. The only small frustration one might encounter is a little splash to the face or pruny toes, but that is part of the show’s fun. People who are for any reason unable to sit for 70 minutes at the pool’s edge, however, are welcome to sit in alternative seats, making this show accessible to even wider audiences. Pool Play 2.0 is a treasure trove of off-off-Broadway creativity. It is not to be missed and will likely leave its participants eager to see what This is Not a Theatre Company will devise next.
Pool Play 2.0 runs through April 8 at Waterside Swim & Health Club (35 Waterside Plaza, a 15-minute walk from First Avenue and 23rd Street). Performancess are at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here.