I do not pretend to have the key to "North Atlantic," which the Wooster Group, a New York-based experimental theater company, brought to the New Playwrights' Theatre last night. It may be a savage indictment of the military establishment, a cockamamie lampoon of life in (and out of) uniform or an extravagant put-on. It is probably all three.
I do know it is often scatological, bewildering, irrational, maddening, sophomoric and surprising. Definitely its own thing, whatever that is. Spectators who prefer plays that fall into relatively neat categories, behave with a modicum of decency and maintain a semblance of coherency are going to have no trouble making up their minds about "North Atlantic." They'll hate it.
The evening is for iconoclasts, those who like to see playhouse walls come tumbling down or a mustache painted on the "Mona Lisa." In "North Atlantic," you will find echoes of all the flag-waving war films of the 1940s. But they are perverse echoes. Playwright Jim Strahs and a cast of eight are zestfully exploding the maudlin sentimentality, the repressed sexuality and the belief in a greater mission that used to be so prevalent in our war entertainments.
I found it most helpful to view the 90-minute piece as the kind of phantasmagoria that might result if -- under the influence, as they say -- you tried to superimpose "Dr. Strangelove" upon "Mister Roberts." But don't take my word as gospel. That doesn't entirely account for the country-western tunes, the dirty jokes, the snatches of vaudeville or the nasty episodes of grilling and torture.
With "North Atlantic," which runs through Dec. 22, the Wooster Group inaugurates a 2 1/2-month residency in Washington under the sponsorship of the American National Theater. ANT's director, Peter Sellars, promised to shake things up. More than his controversial staging of "The Count of Monte Cristo," this one is bound to ruffle feathers and irritate sensibilities.
It is set on an intelligence ship, 12 miles off the coast of Holland, where the crew is apparently engaged in complex coding and decoding activities that no one seems to understand fully. Indeed, this ship of fools may just be a decoy for a real intelligence-gathering operation elsewhere. The forthcoming explanations are either purposefully absurd or they are delivered at such a dizzying speed as to render them incomprehensible. At the same time, the men, randy roosters all, are organizing a wet uniform contest for the female crew members. Power is running amok, but so is the male libido. Or are they one and the same? Here, at any rate, is "the right stuff" going defiantly wrong.
As the welter of scenes unfolds, you will never completely figure out who is who, what is actually going on or even where you are. It's wisest not to try. What "North Atlantic" offers, even the uninitiated, is a surrealistic climate of intrigue. It unfolds on a sharply tilted stage, dominated by a long table that is littered with whirring tape recorders, jangling telephones and flashing red lights. A mobile nerve center, the table possesses a life all its own. At some risk to limb, if not life, the actors must pick, slide and slump their way around, under and over it.
For all their lascivious desires, in fact, you soon get the impression that they are merely cogs in an unstoppable machine. Most of the dialogue is uttered into various microphones, which distort and dehumanize the performers' voices. Technology is on the march. It may already be out of hand. If the tone of "North Atlantic" is sometimes antic, its ultimate implications are chilling.
Chaotic as this sounds, the production has been staged with extraordinary discipline by Elizabeth LeCompte and is acted with fervor by a cast that includes the welcomely wry Spalding Gray, as a particularly lecherous general; Kate Valk, as a word processor who knows more than she's telling; Ron Vawter, as a garble-spouting captain; and Michael Stumm, as a lowly marine private. They and their compatriots are called upon to play in several styles from the broadly caricatural to the minutely realistic and even to adopt several foreign accents. That they do so with such conviction is a cause for wonderment, some amusement and further mystification.
My sympathies generally lie with the adventure-takers, and the Wooster Group is certainly intent on staking out new theatrical frontiers. Still, caveats are in order. The best is a line from the play itself: "I'm warning you. It just may curl your toes."
North Atlantic, by Jim Strahs. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte; designed by Jim Clayburgh; music, Eddy Dixon. With Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Anna Ko hler, Nancy Reilly, Peyton Smith, Michael Stumm, Kate Valk, Ron Vawter. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Dec. 22.