BWW Reviews: JANUARY JOINER is Long on Hope, Short on Results at Long Wharf Theatre
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by Sherry Shameer Cohen
January is makeover month, with the hope of renewal, resolve, reinvention, mainly as it applies to losing weight and getting fit. How perfect is that to launch a world premiere of January Joiners, which is billed as "a weight loss horror comedy?"
It's a great concept, but the play seems somewhat unfinished, as if it is still in the workshop stages. Laura Jacqmin's play tries to address the question of why can't we be happy as we are. The answer is obvious: Contemporary society prefers people who are thin and look healthy. Add to that people's demand for instant (or at least near-instant) gratification. The only way to get this show on the road is to make it a bit of a reality show.
Here are the characters: Single thirty something sisters Terry (Ashlie Atkinson), a very hefty woman who survived a heart attack and Myrtle (Meredith Holtman), who is somewhat overweight, the bulky Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman), trainers April and Brian (Tonya Glanz and Anthony Bowden), and a Not-Terry (Maria-Christina Oliveras), who is the changed (i.e., slimmer) sister. Six characters are not enough to support the setting of a desirable high-end weight loss spa in Florida (and in the summer, not even in January!) Evolve Total Xtreme Weight Loss Boot Camp, the name of the spa, is absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the stunning set by Narelle Sissons and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Oana Botez's costume designs for the trainers are the perfect complement to the set, and her selections for the spa guests are just as we imagined the characters would choose for themselves.
So what could go wrong? For starters, Darnell has been coming to Evolve for eight years and can't lose weight. That is not a good sign. Why would the spa accept him again, except for obvious mercenary reasons? He claims he is content with himself and comes for the social benefits of the spa, but we know that is not true. In a group discussion, Brian, the nicer of the two trainers, reveals that his entire family was overweight and unhealthy and he was determined to be fit and healthy. April, the bullying trainer, claims that she always had a fast metabolism and good genes. "You can't fight your genes," she says. Darnell replies, that's exactly it: you can't fight your genes. In a later scene, he notes that he saw her medical stats and she is not really healthy; she's just thin. She barks back, "My insides may be totally f***ed up, but you can't tell on the outside, and that's where it counts. People look at me and they think: Honest. Happy. Clean. Energetic. Beautiful....When they look at you? Lazy. Smelly. Ugly. Depressed. Depressing. They despise you and they don't even know you." Ouch! They are both right about each other.
Then there is the Terry-Myrtle-Not-Terry knot. Years before, Terry remained in Ohio, while her sister moved to New York City. Their late mother was anorexic and critical of the way they looked. Myrtle, although overweight, came to the spa to support her sister, but their relationship is strained in the second act as a different Terry emerges. This "Not Terry" is played with verve by Oliveras, who is not exactly thin, but definitely looks fit and proves it with the pushups she does. Director Eric Ting wanted to substantiate that Terry's weight loss redefined who she is. The alternative would have been to have the actress wear padding.
Another "character" is a talking vending machine that tempts the spa's patrons. It also bleeds at one point in the play. (Remember, the play is billed as "a weight loss horror comedy.") But why is it there to begin with? Everyone who has struggled to lose even just a few pounds knows there is temptation everywhere. The character who commits suicide doesn't even go to the vending machine.
Which leaves us with the question, why see this play? The book is flawed. The audience left the theatre visibly unsatisfied and even confused. The play needs to be reworked. Fortunately, the actors were superb. Atkinson, in particular, is warm, winsome, friendly and fun. Oliveras was plausible as the changed Terry - a bit hard and competitive -- but she is noticeably shorter and of a different ethnicity. Perhaps she should have played multiple characters to help fill up the spa that people supposedly want to get in. Holzman is likeable as Myrtle. Sherman nicely conveys his character's conflicting emotions. Bowden and Glanz are ideally cast as the trainers, and Glanz skillfully delves into her character's complexities.
We totally get it that American society is obsessed with image and constantly knocked down like bowling pins with foods that have taste (i.e., sugar, salt and fat). Even the information on the wall which leads to the theatre and the program bombard us with statistics about obesity and quotes such as "Food has replaced sex as a source of guilt." If the playwright wants to pose the question of whether people can be happy being fat, there must be a bigger and more diversified group of spa guests and more discussion. Finally, Terry's physical and emotional change in a matter of two months just doesn't ring true. The reason people usually fail to keep off the weight they lose is that the results take long, low fat, low carb food is boring, and they lose motivation. That kind of change may only happen if she could sustain that weight loss for months, or even years. And many people who have to watch their intake because of medical reasons, such as Terry, are unhappy because they can't eat the foods that give them comfort. Back to the table with the script!
January Joiner runs Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through February 10. Tickets are $45.00 and $65.00. Ironically, the next play is Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class. For tickets, call 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.