If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
A “Weight Loss Horror Comedy” at Long Wharf
You may be craving more than a Twix bar while watching “January Joiner”, the self-proclaimed “weight loss horror comedy” by Laura Jacqmin currently at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Little things like a coherent plot, characters to care about and elevated writing might also be on your wish list. This is one odd hybrid of a play making its world premiere at Long Wharf.
Set at an exclusive Florida health spa, “January Joiner” introduces three overweight individuals: a pair of sisters and a jovial fellow who has been coming to the club for years more to socialize than exercise. The group is welcomed by the club’s condescending personal trainers who give the initial impression that the play is about body image especially as applied to women. This is certainly a worthwhile and timely topic but no sooner has that idea been raised than the play switches gears to suggest it may instead be a satire about our obsessions with weight and physical appearance. But wait, lurking elsewhere at the spa is a talking vending machine with malice on its mind (this is where the “horror” part comes in). You begin asking questions. Is this really a spa or some sort of Weight Watchers limbo? It’s all a bit of a confused mess.
There are some nice moments to be sure in “January Joiner”. Jacqmin establishes a realistic relationship between the sisters (Ashlie Atkinson and Meredith Holzman) as she examines the petty jealousies and slights that can fester with siblings. But when, in the second act, Atkinson is replaced by a slimmer version of herself (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Jacqmin never quite makes it clear if the girl really is who she claims to be. And what of the blood-thirsty “monster” that appears in act one and then is never seen again? There is also some out-of-the-blue vulgarity sprinkled throughout the comedy that seems to belong in another play entirely.
Throughout the “comedy,” members are browbeaten at every turn by April (Tonya Glanz) playing the more mean-spirited of the trainers. There’s little that redeems this repellent character and Glanz’s one-note performance doesn’t help change that fact. Anthony Bowden, as a co-trainer with 2% body fat and Daniel Stewart Sherman, as a member who has the other 98%, manage to get through the proceedings with their dignity intact even when Sherman is fitted with a Speedo and angel wings. Don’t ask.
Director Eric Ting attempts to convince us that something of real importance is going on here. He has coaxed mostly good performances from his cast, moved it along as fluidly as possible and given it an attractive package. Credit to his designers Stephen Strawbridge (lighting), Narelle Sissons (set), Dana Botez (costumes) and, in particular, Leah Gelpe (sound). Now if he only had a play worth all the effort. We look forward to next May when this talented director will get the opportunity to tackle an A-list script, Bruce Norris’ Tony winning drama, “Clybourne Park”. Ting deserves a better play. So do we.
“January Joiner” continues at Long Wharf’s Stage II through February 10. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.