Sunday, January 27, 2013

Theater Review: January Joiner -- Long Wharf

Anthony Bowden and Meredith Holzman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

It’s a Weight-Loss Spa from Hell – Maybe Literally, but We’re Not Sure…
By Lauren Yarger
Billed as a horror comedy, Laura Jacqmin’s January Joiner at Long Wharf Theatre follows two sisters who attend a high-end, weight-loss spa in Florida. It’s a premise that’s promising, but a meandering script that verges on bizarre doesn’t satiate our appetite for a cohesive plot and message.

Most of us feel like we can pull up a chair at the table of having made New Year’s resolutions about losing weight (it is January and the timing couldn’t be better for this world premiere, after all), but after a few yummy appetizers like the cool set and lighting design by Narelle Sissons and Stephen Strawbridge, enhanced by Leah Gelpe’s sound effects, Jacqmin fails to serve up the main dish. The idea of a weight-loss regiment being hell is taken way too far with a seemingly demon-possessed vending machine that becomes a character itself and inexplicably interferes with the action (though to explain how would involve too many spoilers).

At the heart of the story are sisters Terry (Ashlie Atkinson), who needs to lose weight after a health scare, and Myrtle (Meredith Holman), herself a bit on the hefty side, but who comes primarily to support Terry. Oddly, there is only one other participant: Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman), back for the eighth time to suit up in the green-and-white gear worn at “Evolve, where the obese man obviously benefits more from social interaction than from the weight- loss program. 

Instructors Brian (Anthony Bowden) and April (Tonya Glanz) look intimidatingly perfect in the same matching warmup suits the overweight participants must don (Dana Botez does the costume design). Brian admires April’s toned gluts while she encourages the students to visualize a knife with which to cut away their excess fat. They can get rid of that pile of carved-off fat on the floor by staying with the program – and away from the vending machine – she coaches.

All isn’t what it appears to be, however. Brian and April’s relationship got complicated during the last session, and she wants it to continue, but now he’s attracted to Myrtle. That’s a problem, for Terry, who has her own romantic hopes for Brian while harboring resentment toward her sister who always seems to best her at everything. And meanwhile, Darnell’s interest in Terry is goes unnoticed.

After a while, Myrtle is pretty sure that vending machine is behind the look alike (played by Maria-Christina Oliveras) claiming to be Terry, but she doubts herself when no one else seems to notice. After all, Myrtle wonders, how well does she really know Terry? How well do we really know anyone deeper than what’s on the surface, including ourselves, seems to be the question not fully explored here. Because there is little character development – with some backstory coming way too late in the play – we really don’t care. After two hours, we head out from the theater is search of a sugary dessert to fill the hunger left by this less-than-fulfilling main course.

Eric Ting helms the production and gets what he can from the actors, but a lack of a theme and a murky message prove too much to overcome, especially with the jog over to the dark side with that outlandish and unexplained vending machine.

January Joiner plays a Long Wharf's Stage II through Feb. 10. Performance times vary. Tickets are $45-$65. (203) 787-4282; www.longwharf.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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