“January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy” by Laura Jacqmin gives world premieres the dubious reputation they so often deserve. This particular production at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage Two in New Haven tries to spew so many messages that it gets lost in its own spin. Two sisters come to Evolve, an upscale weight loss center in Florida, to shed pounds. What makes this play so weird and gives it its horror classification is a weird and diabolical vending machine that does a lot more than talk and deliver goodies.
Two fitness instructors, Brian and April, are devoted to their professions to the point where Brian wants to live his entire life in this facility and April will stop at nothing to succeed. Clients include Darnell and a pair of sisters, Terry and Myrtle. After learning that there has been some sibling rivalry between the two sisters throughout their lives especially when it came to boys, we see that they are starting to bond as they go through the demands of a rigorous workout schedule. However, when Brian falls for Myrtle, the old wounds return with the sisters at odds over the same man.
Darnell, who is smitten with Terry, doesn’t count in Terry’s eyes. She sees Darnell as a fat man and closes her eyes to anything else about him. Darnell is comfortable with who he is. He only attends these weight loss sessions to meet people. However, it is when the audience recognizes that Terry doesn’t see the person beyond the weight that we begin to understand what the playwright intends for us to see. People are so quick to think that a thin person is a perfect person. When the heavier sister loses so much weight that the other sister doesn’t recognize her and doesn’t even like her anymore, then the theme of transformation and evolution (remember the name of the spa is “Evolve”) would be firmly set, except for the vending machine from hell.
Frustration drives Myrtle to the machine where instead of getting a forbidden treat, she receives a serrated knife. This is where the play begins to falter. Anyone who would get such an item from a talking vending machine would either report it to someone or stay away from the machine. Not so with Myrtle. She returns again and again to more horrifying experiences. The ridiculous ending wipes out all hope for making sense of a play that started out okay and wound up a complete mess.
Directed with precision by Eric Ting, who almost made sense out of this work, everything else about the production worked like a charm. The cast is superb. Ashlie Atkinson as Terry, Anthoney Bowden as Brian, Tonya Glanz as April, Meredith Holzman as Myrtle, Maria-Christina Oliversas as the Terry double, and Daniel Steward Sherman as Darnell play their roles convincingly.
The creative team is spot on with Narelle Sisson’s sparkling, sterile set, Dana Botez’s politically correct and streamlined green and white workout suits, and Stephen Strawbridge’ lighting design and Leah Gelpe’s imaginative sound effects.
This is a two-act, two-hour production running through Feb. 10. Box office: 203-787-4282.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT. She welcomes comments. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.