Adam Bock began Swimming in the Shallows by writing these instructions to himself: “Simple and funny.” The resulting play, about both detachment and attachment, features a gay man who falls in love with a shark, a woman inspired by Buddhism to discard her possessions, and a lesbian couple conflicted about marriage and smoking. The recipient of numerous critics’ awards in San Francisco, Swimming in the Shallows is receiving its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theatre from June 21 to July 12.
“I use comedy to open people,” says Bock. “I think it’s a way of getting people to trust you, to get them to relax. I think I have a little bit of a tilted sense of the world at times. I think people notice that.” Bock’s work is getting plenty of notice these days. The Shaker Chair, which explores the choices faced by three women in their fifties and sixties, had its world premiere this March at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville. The Courier-Journal theater critic called it “briskly funny and bracing.” The Typographer’s Dream, which takes the form of a panel discussion among a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, won rave reviews in San Francisco during its West Coast premiere in February. And Bock’s newest work, The Thugs, had a workshop production in April at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.
“I’m having a really good year,” admits Bock, who wrote and starred in his first play, an adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, when he was just ten years old. In 1987, after attending Bowdoin College, he enrolled in Brown’s playwriting program, where he studied under Paula Vogel, best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning play, How I Learned to Drive, and Mac Wellman, an Obie Award winner. From Vogel, he learned “to start from a formal point of view rather than a storytelling point of view.” From Wellman came a sense of “the glory of language.”
Critics often use the word quirky to describe Bock’s plays. They also note the stripped-down, sometimes self-conscious quality of his dialogue, which has drawn comparisons to David Mamet and Harold Pinter. “I like the music of language,” Bock says. “As feeling is introduced into a scene, suddenly language breaks down or it swirls. There are so many different energies inside language, so the shape of it has to change.”
Bock says he tries to upset expectations about content as well as form. “I’m always trying to write stories about people who aren’t normally on stage: gay people, women,” he says. “I want to watch guys fall in love.” If his female characters seem particularly vivid, credit his mother, his women friends—and his Canadian upbringing. In Canada, says the Montreal-born writer, “I think there’s a deeper equality.”
Not infrequently, Bock’s characters express the need to declutter their lives, an impulse with which he identifies. While bouncing from Providence (where he directed The Gay Boy Nutcracker) to San Francisco to New York City, he sold off most of his books and other belongings and now resides in Hell’s Kitchen, in a white-walled studio apartment with no wall decorations. “Sort of orphanage chic is what I call it,” he says.