It's unfortunate that Philip Seymour Hoffman's 2010 adaptation of Jack Goes Boating was such a plodding, underwhelming bore: That film's indifferent reviews could turn audiences away from Artists Repertory Theatre's current production of Bob Glaudini's script, and that'd be a shame. Artists Rep returns considerable charm and liveliness to Jack, which here proves itself a sweet-hearted, offbeat study of a socially awkward man courting an equally socially awkward woman.
Jack (Todd Van Voris) is a middle-aged limo driver whose midlife crisis is manifesting as an embarrassing interest in all things Rasta: His sad white-boy dreads, enthusiastic marijuana use, and misinterpretations of reggae song lyrics evoke nothing more than freshman year at Reed College. He plays "Rivers of Babylon" over and over on his tiny, crappy tape deck, until the tape is worn, warping, and annoying the hell out of his best friends Clyde (John San Nicolas) and Lucy (Tai Sammons). When Clyde and Lucy introduce him to Connie (Emily Sahler Beleele), their tentative romance urges Jack to the limits of his comfort zone: He begins taking swimming lessons, so he can take Connie boating, and learns to cook, because no one has ever cooked for her before.
Connie is an interesting character, as written: She's an odd, frumpy duck, constantly convinced that men are hitting on her—including her boss, whom Lucy assures her is gay. All of this conspires to create the impression that Connie is a bit delusional: a reaction along the lines of "Really? Who would hit on her?" Glaudini's upending of that reaction is one of that play's neatest tricks, a gentle reminder that when it comes to sexual violence, the assumptions that underlie our notions of female victimhood and culpability are often flat-out wrong.
The show's lone weakness is its baffling set design: Though most of the play takes place indoors, the set's walls look like exteriors, a brick façade reminiscent of a park's public restrooms. Several scenes take place in a swimming pool, and an unimaginative staging of those scenes asks the actors to pantomime their strokes while surrounded by an illuminated blue border suggesting water. Watching actors onstage pantomiming any action is inherently vaguely embarrassing, a generally unwelcome reminder that they're just playing. These quibbles aside, though, it's a strong production—funny, intelligently acted, and sweet.