"A Weight Loss Horror Comedy." By Laura Jacqmin. Directed by Eric Ting. Through February 10 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. (203) 787-4282. longwharf.org
Far be it from me to pre-judge, but the marketing of January Joiner, and its sensationalistic subtitle "A Weight Loss Horror Comedy," led me to believe that this was a lightweight comedy about overweight people. You know, like all those Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow comedies where insensitive jokes are blurted with abandon, then later regretted when a poignant conclusion is required to balance the melodrama.
Such a show wouldn't be unusual for Long Wharf's Stage II, where there've been any number of plays that have traded openly in social stereotypes: Daniel Goldfarb's Jewish comedy Modern Orthodox, Steven Drukman's coming-out comedy Going Native, Theresa Rebeck's ditzy single-woman comedy Bad Dates and all those Late Nite Catechism shows, not to mention My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy.
When a sample scene from January Joiner (utilizing much of the same cast which is now in the full production) was informally presented at a Long Wharf season-announcement event last summer, it didn't suggest much more than jolly set-ups for funny freak-outs.
But Laura Jacqmin's play (receiving its world premiere under the supportive hand of Long Wharf Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting) turns out to be much more in keeping with progressive, open-minded, interestingly structured Stage II turns such as Noah Haidle's Rag and Bone, Aditi Brennan Kapil's Agnes Under the Big Top, or the Julia Cho plays Durango and BFE. This disarming modern comedy is much deeper, and much more abstract, than anticipated.
The Long Wharf also resets any prejudices you might have about the ostensible subject matter of the play — the tensions and torrid hook-ups behind the scenes at a pricey weight-loss camp in Florida — as soon as you set foot in the lobby. There, you'll see portions of last year's much-heralded Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. There are also shelves of library books about nutrition, body image and other weighty subjects, loaned by the New Haven Free Public Library. (Tom Arnold's How I Lost 5 Pounds in 6 Years and Kirstie Alley's How to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life: Reluctant Confessions of a Big-Butted Star are NOT among them.)
January Joiner is only intermittently about the national obsession with losing weight (and gaining it back). This has a lot to do with playwright Jacqmin's confident and empathetic writing, which challenges but does not embarrass the show's six performers. The characters — a trio of clients at the clinic, a pair of peppy instructors, and a fleeting figure who represents several different types of spiritual presence — interact and interrelate in ways which transcend their inner personal struggles.
Two of the clients are sisters. The third is a man who returns regularly to the camp, without losing a pound, because he has found acceptance there. The two trainers are ex-lovers. The conflicts in the comedy are outward and ostentatious. The stark, shiny white set isn't the only thing that glares incessantly — most of the actors do, too.
The fact that this play has jokes, jokes that aren't nearly as cheap as they could be, is a plus. But January Joiner also has interesting, non-stereotypical takes on self-esteem, power abuse, and how major life changes can affect how others see the person who's been changed. One of the characters is a ominous talking candy-vending machine which seems to know the inner secrets of those who innocently push its buttons. There are garish, bloody horror-flick moments and suspenseful moments with knives, but also some haunting scenes of genuine emotions, the kind that happen when folks lose faith in themselves or begin to lord it over others.
January Joiner has definitely gained from a Long Wharf workshop last year and some further revisions during the rehearsal process for this full production. Some big moments were conceived just recently; when I noticed that the show's closing image wasn't mentioned in the script, director Ting told me it had just been added during preview performances.
There are still things which could be improved. The desire for a sleek, pristine, gleaming white and uncluttered set design (by Narelle Sissons) means that the actors have to keep ducking behind a wall to fetch props, which really screws with the flow of the dialogue. There are also numerous soliloquies that need to be recited so directly and pointedly that they virtually defy staging. There are awkward scene transitions, even awkward transitions from line to line.
But those are the risks you take when you choose to blend fast-paced comedy with harrowing self-revelations. When you boldly mix fantasy with reality. When you filter classic comedy set-ups through post-modern writing and directing styles. When you choose to emulate Eugene Ionesco rather than Neil Simon. January Joiner is a worthwhile two-hour work-out, keeping us in shape for some further arch social satires (Curse of the Starving Class, Clybourne Park) later in this Long Wharf season. It's lean and mean.