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Whether rehearsing at the Tarragon Theatre or fine-tuning his latest production at Buddies in Bad Times, director Daryl Cloran can't help making a mental note of the company he's been keeping. That's when his 30-year-old heart almost stops beating for a split second.

At the Tarragon, a picture of Richard Greenblatt, circa first production of Two Pianos, Four Hands, dons the door of the men's washroom. Over at Buddies, there are posters of Daniel MacIvor in Cul-de-sac and of the forthcoming Hedda Gabler adapted by Judith Thompson and directed by Ross Manson -- just two shows by theatre's who's who in the current Buddies season to which Cloran is contributing the Canadian premiere of Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows, co-starring Greenblatt. Such iconic visual presence helps him realize how far he's come since he burst on our theatre scene in 1999, and how much more he has to accomplish to match his idols' record of success.

"It's flattering to be among all these theatre giants," Cloran says during a short break at Buddies. "If you're looking at other people working here, I feel like a very young director with a lot to learn. But at the same time, I've been directing for five or six years and have pushed the emerging-artist thing as far as I can. I don't think I'm eligible for any emerging-artist awards any more."

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In fact, the boyish-looking Cloran is already well into the mentor phase of his career. After years of assisting others, he is attracting younger directors eager to work under him. "There's a whole new generation coming out of school that look at me as someone in the business," explains Cloran, who remains realistic about the precarious nature of theatre living. "It's a heck of a business where you have to put yourself out there with every show you do, proving yourself while looking for the next gig."

Cloran will not have to look hard for his next gig: He's already signed on to direct Carole Fréchette's Helen's Necklace at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., with Chick Reid in the title role. But his current engagement -- a production of his company Theatrefront ( Our Country's Good, Mojo, The Underpants) in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre -- was still coming together at the time of our conversation, one day before its first and only preview. ("The economics of the situation doesn't allow any additional previews," says Cloran, who describes his job as Theatrefront's artistic director as a "full-time job with less than part-time wages.")

Swimming in the Shallows is a quirky drama that examines three different loving relationships: between two women, a man and a woman, and a man and a real-life shark. Those who think gay marriage has opened the floodgates to all sorts of "perversions" should relax: The play is a "modern-day parable" about learning to love oneself before loving others. Bock, a self-described "Canadian with a green card" who divides his time between New York and San Francisco, is interested in exploring the profound, ludicrous and metaphoric aspects of relationships.

"The story is lovely," Cloran insists. "It's got a beautiful heart. It deals with such complex issues as spirituality, consumerism and gay marriage, but it tells them very simply. It's not overly pedantic. You get the message in the midst of enjoying a story about interesting characters."

The attraction to Bock's writing -- the two men never met but enjoy a "very healthy e-mail correspondence" -- may also be a matter of style as well as content. "The play is really fast, funny, contemporary and theatrical in a way that really grabs me. There's basically no set; everything moves very quickly and breaks the fourth wall constantly."

There's also the pleasure of working with his wife Holly Lewis, founding Theatrefront member and close friend Daryl Trowbridge and such established actors as Caroline Gillis, Clinton Walker, Glynis Ranney and, of course, Greenblatt.

"There's a level of experience that's both exciting and intimidating to work with," Cloran says, particularly of Gillis and Greenblatt, who play the older, suburban couple in the play. "The man's face is on the Tarragon's men's room. How more iconic can you get? But both have been great and easy to work with."

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Opens Jan. 7 and runs to Jan. 26. $15-$27. Tues. to Sat., 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre , 12 Alexander St., 416-975-8555.

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