THE PERVERSELY entertaining "North Atlantic" could be called a comedy of bad manners. At New Playwrights' Theater, the play is the opening salvo of the visiting Wooster Group, New York's seminal experimental ensemble. Its 90 startling minutes overload the senses and will surely divide audiences into two warring camps. One man's "experimental rubbish" is another's "new art form" -- and the comically corrosive "North Atlantic" provides ample ammunition for both sides.
A "you-had-to-be-there" evening if ever there was one, "North Atlantic" plunges us into the insular, insane terrain of intelligence personnel aboard an aircraft carrier whose male denizens entertain themselves with vicious interrogations -- and the promise of seeing the ship's women degraded in an upcoming wet uniform contest.
While these lust-addled lunatics alternate between spewing military jargon and scabrous sexual fantasies, the robotic women, referred to as "nurse/word processor gals," perform nonsense tasks and speak in stiff, dehumanized cadences, swapping lines and speaking in chorus, like the Shangri-las in "Leader of the Pack."
Jim Strahs' densely layered text overflows with images and rude, preposterous -- and very real -- language delivered at breakneck speed. It's impossible to comprehend (or describe) it all, as the Woosters whiz by us with WWII propaganda movies, taped garble, standup comedy, prurient puns and dirty jokes, pop culture references, cowboy dances and tightrope tangos, earsplitting jet blasts . . . .
Pressed further, you might also call this a "musical" -- the characters suddenly, incongruously break into songs, and the show somehow encompasses both a sacrilegious rendition of "Ave Maria" and Eddy Dixon's self-descriptive "Jungle Beat."
Jm Clayburgh's striking stage design provides a corresponding plethora of perspectives, using a bi-level set with an alarmingly raked "control panel" that enables performers to glare down over the audience, send themselves and articles of clothing sliding down ramps, and appear in silhouette behind the stage.
And the riot of sound and vision is directed with rigorous, vigorous discipline and precision by Elizabeth LeCompte.
At the dark heart of "North Atlantic," however, are the extraordinary performances of the Wooster Group itself, which is in residence for 21/2 months under the auspices of the American National Theater. Even with so many distractions, you'll remember with pleasure Willem Dafoe's frightening jack-o-lantern grin; Spalding Gray's sly, cultured deadpan; Kate Valk's dual-natured, soft-and-hard presence; and Ron Vawter's hard-eyed glare and machine-gun delivery.
If you venture into this boisterous display of theater pyrotechnics, don't worry too much about "getting it." That's beside the point. As "North Atlantic's" General Benders says, "I can't say I follow every strand -- but then again, that's why we're here."
NORTH ATLANTIC -- Performed by The Wooster Group at New Playwrights' Theater through December 22.