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North Atlantic -- Theater Review

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Why is it that when a company like the Roundabout produces the same old theatrical warhorses they get nailed, while the avant-garde Wooster Group can repeatedly trot out its vintage pieces with the explanation that they're "revisiting" them and garner hosannas? Such is likely to be the case with "North Atlantic," receiving its third New York production since its 1984 premiere. Considering that it's not even one of the company's best works, the repetition is puzzling.

Of course, for this revival, the venerable company has brought in a couple of movie/TV star ringers: Frances McDormand, who appeared in its "To You, the Birdie!" and Maura Tierney, who was scheduled to star in NBC's "Parenthood" before health troubles forced her to withdraw.

They are appearing with many of the troupe's usual members, including company veteran Kate Volk, hilariously reprising her performance as the sexy Ensign word processor Ann Pusey.

Written by James Strahs, the diffuse (to say the least) piece -- which takes place during the early 1980s, at the height of Reagan era Cold War hysteria -- is set on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Holland (apparently because it started out as a collaboration with a Dutch theater company). It satirizes the conventions of vintage war movies, including the inevitable conflicts between the officers and the enlisted men, and eventually becomes a frenzied sex farce in its depiction of the randy interplay among the men and women who live and work in tight quarters.

Along the way, the characters occasionally stop what they're doing to burst into musical numbers (including "Back in the Saddle" and "Yankee Doodle"), and the women are constantly fussing with such vintage technology as reel-to-reel tape recorders and phonograph turntables.
The two-level stage features a playing area beneath a stage so steeply raked at 45 degrees that one simultaneously admires the performers' athleticism and fears for their safety.

Unfortunately, "Atlantic" is a more visceral than intellectually interesting experience, with whatever satirical points the piece is trying to make obscured by its silly absurdist situations, hoary jokes, willful linguistic obscurity and general air of self-indulgence. Although it runs a scant 90 minutes, it feels much, much longer.

Director Elizabeth LeCompte has whipped her company into terrific shape with her usual disciplined precision, and whatever one thinks of the text, there's no denying the incredible focus and commitment of the performers. Both guest artists meld beautifully with the rest of the troupe: McDormand is terrific as a tough-minded master sergeant, and Tierney has great moments, especially with her impersonation of a heavily accented French prostitute.

Despite the strengths of the production and the play's undeniable continued relevance in these jingoistic times, it might be time for the company to retire "Atlantic" and move on to more fruitful artistic pursuits.

Venue: Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York (Through April 25)
Production: Wooster Group
Cast: Ari Fliakos, Paul Lazar, Steve Cuiffo, Zachary Oberzan, Kate Valk, Frances McDormand, Jenny Seastone Stern, Maura Tierney, Koosil-ja, Scott Shepherd
Playwright: James Strahs
Director: Elizabeth LeCompte
Set designer: Jim Clayburgh
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer: Bruce Odland, Matt Schloss, Omar Zubair
Costume designer: Wooster Group