Not so much a narrative play as a staged tone poem, this unique hour-long production, written by Daniel MacIvor, serves as a terrific metaphor for male competitiveness and how instilled aggression enervates the ability to love. On a brightly lit beach set, The Girl (Lilo Grunwald) begins to talk of the two boys who draw her attention, Frank (Paul Kouri) and Bill (Johnny Clark). She has a mild flirtation, and her cheery swimming challenge, "Race you to the point," shifts the action to her serving as a referee for a series of verbal jousts between Frank and Bill, marking scores on a chalkboard next to a lifeguard's chair.
Frank seems to have the upper hand, undermining Bill's confidence by claiming that a friend thought Bill "a bit too palpably desperate." As the stakes build to an inevitable climax—the Referee has told us one of them has a gun in his briefcase—Frank announces, "Compassion will kill desire, especially the desire to be first." Director Ross Kramer capably guides the work and has found three youthful, vibrant actors who fully inhabit these nontraditional roles. Kramer's execution of ritual movement and repetition of choice passages of MacIvor's text have a certain hypnotic effect as the play goes on.
The playwright wisely sets the story on the last day of summer, before school begins. Before the piece is done, the dark secret that binds these two boys, who so desperately envision themselves as men, haunts us, as it will them. Kouri's transition from fresh-faced kid to coldblooded competitor is well performed, an important contrast to Clark's kindly boy-turned-victim turn. Grunwald's sweetness and strong presence throughout is the final piece of this work, which stays in the memory long after the last race of these lifelong competitors is done.
"Never Swim Alone," presented by and at the West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. Tue.-Thu. 8 p.m., June 15-July 8. $13-15. (323) 525-0022.