Contemporary playwrights are often sensitive to recognizing diversity in their work. Occasionally they’ll go so far as to throw in a nonhuman, in an unusual role, to mix things up and move beyond the literal.

Though animal lovers of a more traditional sort may not always appreciate it, there is usually a method behind the bestial madness. And that would seem to be the case with Adam Bock’s wacky and surprisingly touching comedy “Swimming in the Shallows,” which is the latest offering from Portland’s Dramatic Repertory Company.

As reviewed at Sunday’s matinee, the very well-cast production brings out author Bock’s creation of a group of characters just quirky enough to be interesting without going too far into the deep end of silliness. The best part of the play is that it very nicely takes you into a circle of likable friends and partners who obviously like each other, despite their occasional squabbles. Having seen most of the six actors in other roles over the years, it’s hard to remember when any of them have appeared to fit better and enjoy themselves any more than here.

As directed by Daniel Burson, the 90-minute play employs a minimal set but makes effective use of projected titles and images. The actors occasionally step out of the action to address the audience directly with bits of narration, and there are a couple of spirited social dance sequences.

Though the loving in this tale of three couples only once requires a snorkel, a central relationship in the play is formed between a 30-something gay man and a male mako shark.

Local stage veteran Peter Brown plays Nick, the young man who can’t figure out why his relationships generally last no more than a few days. His luck seems to change when he lays eyes on an unhappily confined shark, played by a finned Matt Delamater, through the glass at a Rhode Island aquarium. He finally finds himself able to take it slow in a relationship and avoid getting bitten by rejection.

Nick’s human friends also have their problems. Donna, played by Janice Gardner, and Carla Carla (yes, twice), played by Janice O’Rourke, can’t agree on if, when or how they should marry each other (alternately referred to as a “commitment ceremony”). And married couple Bob and Barb, played by Christopher Holt and Bess Welden, are not sure if their marriage can survive Barb’s desire to renounce their possessions, which make her feel “heavy.”

The play zips along with neatly timed comings and goings. No huge conclusions are presented but one does sort of wish old, conventional Bob wasn’t quite so left out at the end. It is understandable, though, in a play that definitely tilts toward the shark’s preference for “feeling the blood vibrating in [people’s] bodies.”

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.