What is the essence of a good play -- or, on rare occasions -- a great play? Mystery is the secret ingredient, a quality which falls midway on the scale. If a play moves to the far end of the scale, explaining too much, it gives the audience no chance to do its own work. But, landing at the other end of the scale, a play sinks into total chaos, moving from mystery to mumbo-jumbo.
Thus it is with “January Joiner,” the play now making its debut at Long Wharf’s Stage Two. Chaos, mumbo-jumbo, inexplicability best describe this effort by playwright Laura Jacqmin. Granted that the theme—obesity—is relevant and timely. Indeed, obesity is now a world-wide issue, according to reports. And Jacqmin certainly draws an intriguing, satirical picture of a weight-loss spa -- with its painful regimen (reminding one of an army boot camp) and its pseudo-scientific jargon.
If only Jacqmin had only stopped there! But no. The plot suddenly moves into a make-believe world, with a vending machine which wreaks havoc and characters which appear from outer space. (What’s a vending machine doing at a weight-loss spa in the first place, one wonders.)
The play opens with three grossly overweight clients weighing in, supervised by two slim trainers. The scenes move quickly, under Eric Ting’s astute direction, as characters interact and struggle to get with the program. Two sisters shower each other with love, hate, jealousy, and memories. (Though the characters displayed human emotions, their concerns never reached this reviewer. “January Joiner” offered no emotional impact, probably because the surrealism interfered.)
Granted that Ting, as always, makes the most of a high-tech set, working with set designer Narelle Sissons. In fact, the design team as a whole (with Stephen Strawbridge (lighting), Leah Gelpe (sound), and Oana Botez (costumes) is highly effective. But, one wonders, to what purpose? The play surrendered any chance of working when it wandered off into Never-Never-Land, leaving the audience lost in space.
Adequate work all round from the actors (in alphabetical order)—Ashlie Atkinson, Anthony Bowden, Tonya Glanz, Meredith Holzman, Maria-Christina Oliveras, and Daniel Stewart Sherman. But even this capable ensemble cannot save the day.
This review also appears on: nytheaterscene.com