Ashlin Halfnight's contribution to the 2006 Fringe Festival, Diving Normal, makes two things abundantly clear. First, that the playwright deserves his Fulbright Award. Second, that this playwright has just graduated Columbia's MFA Playwrighting program. Halfnight has an excellent command of character, and a distinctly theatrical sense--like Albee--of the heartwrenchingly compelling. However, he lacks an even temperament: some of his lines are playfully cheap and the narrative build suffers from uneven pacing and focus. Diving Normal is a pleasure to watch, but it has too much splash to be a perfect dive.
Though the play is ostensibly about the budding relationship between Fulton, a geekily hip writer, and his high-school crush Dana (a pill-popping, pain-addicted dream girl), the real story is about Fulton's neighbor, Gordon, a mildly retarded library technician. Calling this the world's "most unlikely love triangle" is a disservice to Halfnight's writing: the way he builds on the loneliness of each character makes the end result not just inevitable but understandable. He uses an abundance of ill-explained devices to get there, but the strength of his characters overwhelms the niggling, unresolved questions and the sudden, expository outbursts.
Diving Normal won the "Best Ensemble" award from the festival, but Jayd McCarty, who plays Gordon, is the soul that holds it together. It takes real skill to show awkwardness without becoming a one-dimensional version of it. (This is the trap Josh Heine, who plays Fulton, falls into when the script gives him a cheesy line, or the direction strips him of action.) Though Mary Catherine Burke's blocking does little to enhance the comedy, the mannerisms she has helped McCarty find do wonders whenever Gordon's onstage. It's unfortunate that the same backbone has not been provided to Eliza Baldi (Dana): her emotion is palpable, but it seems disconnected from the cast; more a product of Baldi's hard work than a natural moment.
But hey, we watch the perfect diver as much for the mistakes as for the flawless technique, and regardless of the edges, Diving Normal is a smooth, exciting show.
Electric Pear Productions @ The 14th Street Y (344 East 14th Street)
9/7 @ 9:30; 9/8 @ 9:15, 9/10 @ 4:30, 9/12 @ 7:00, 9/21 @ 4:00, 9/24 @ 4:00
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00