'January Joiner:' A Comedy That's A Workout



The show: World premiere of “January Joiner” at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II in New Haven.


First impressions: Playwright Laura Jacqmin has more on her mind than a simple send-up of TV’s “The Biggest Loser” and other high-intensity weight-loss programs. But her many ideas about the changing nature of our exterior and interior selves -- and the effects on others -- how if effects others -- are crowded, scattered and diffused in this well-cast, nimbly-directed and stylishly-designed production.


Billed as “a weight loss horror comedy” its story about two sisters who attend a mysterious high-end seaside spa and are changed leave into different women is just a tiny bit scary, somewhat surreal, lightly satirical and sometimes touching, when it’s not being sentimental. But when you weight everything, it’s only slightly satisfying. In the end, you still feel hungry for something more.


Lots of food imagery there: You almost can’t help it when you’re talking about food, weight loss and body image. I’ll try to do better.


So the play needs…? To flesh out the characters. Sorry. “Develop the characters more fully.” The central characters are play centers on two 30-something single sisters. There is Terry (Ashlie Atkinson), a very full-figured woman, who has stayed home in Ohio and has had a recent “cardiac event” that has brought her to the boot-camp clinic. She is determined to lose 50, no, make that 100 pounds.


And then there’s Myrtle (Meredith Holzman), Terry’s sister, who is a less-heavy woman -- but not exactly svelte -- who moved to New York when she was younger and who is at the spa there to support sis and lose a few pounds, too, maybe. At first you might think this is simply a story about sibling rivalry as the two compare body issues they had growing up. But it’s all relative, and when a romantic twist is introduced involving one of the trainers, things get complicated -- but not in believable or clear-headed way.


It’s not just because there is something very weird about the place, cleanly designed by Narelle Sissons and evocatively lit by Stephen Strawbridge. After all, there are only three clients there, the third one being husky, sweet-natured Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who is back, happily, for the eighth time because he likes the two competitive trainers who bizarrely make up the spa’s entire staff: enthusiastic-but-vulnerable Brian (Anthony Bowden), and the intense April (Tonya Glanz). And then there’s a haunted, evil vending machine that terrorizes the weak with temptations of candy and cutlery.


The performances? Not to be faulted. Sherman is clearly the audience favorite because of his character’s lovable nature that manages to rise above all the spa stress, at least for a while. but the jolting change in his perspective doesn’t work. is unearned in the script. Glanz nails the hyper-personality of the most me-centric, over-the-top trainer you’ve ever seen, especially on TV. Bowden nicely taps into the humanity and insecurities lying under the surface of his buff bod.


Atkinson is a strong presence on stage and is missed when she is not there. Holzman is a game actress, but her character is one that among the group is most lost as things change around her.


Overall, the characters are too lightly drawn, colored with a few sentimental details: a pet turtle, an old camp song. The end-message of this flawed fable is more of an after-thought than an inevitable resolution.


Who will like it: Foodies, self-esteem advocates, those who embrace change.


Who won’t: Personal trainer Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser.”


For the kids: Teens could relate to the general body image theme and Twilight Zone elements, and it could be a topic of conversation. But they’ll find it just as muddled as you do.


Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Transformation isn’t easy and neither is new comedy about changing minds and bodies


Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: I’m feeling kind of peckish. Mmmmm, donuts. No, gym. No, donuts.


The basics: The show at 222 Sargent Drive plays through Feb. 10. The play runs two hours, including one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and an additional Sunday performance at 7 p.m. on Jan. 20. Tickets are $45 to $65. Information: www.longwharf.org and 203-787-4282.

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