‘January Joiner’: fat & thin, funny & scary at Long Wharf

The Connecticut theater year has gotten off to a great start with the world premiere production of Laura Jacqmin’s “January Joiner” at Long Wharf Theatre’s snug Stage II.

The play is a hard-to-describe mixture of different genres used to examine our current obsession with being as thin and as beautiful as possible — in other words, caring more about our surfaces than what is underneath.

“January Joiner” is set at an upscale Florida spa called Evolve where — rather mysteriously — only three clients have signed up for the restricted diet and intense physical training.

The clients consist of one man (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and two women — the women are sisters, with the slightly plumpish younger one (Meredith Holzman) coming along with her heavier older sister (Ashlie Atkinson) who has just suffered a “cardiac event” that has finally scared her into doing something about her weight.

The only two staff members we meet are trainers Brian (Anthony Bowden) and April (Tonya Glanz) — he is rather laid-back about his work, she is uptight because of being passed over for a promotion and raise.

Jacqmin and director Eric Ting make it clear early on that we are not to expect sustained realism in “January Jones” — a seductive, talking vending machine is introduced close to the start of the play and there are light and sound effects straight out of a horror movie (making the lonely spa as sinister as one of those mysteriously deserted summer camps or hospitals in a 1980s slasher film).

The mixture of comedy and drama and horror feels fresh and it never gets in the way of Jacqmin’s exploration of the body issues of every character in the play. We learn that the manic April is a “thin fat person” (pretty and svelte but with a host of health issues from her severe lifestyle) and get to see flashes of unexpected jealousy on Terry’s part triggered by her thinner but by no means thin sister.

Jacqmin takes a big leap into macabre fantasy in Act Two when a different, slimmer actress (Maria-Christina Oliveras) steps into the role of Terry and Myrtle is horrified by a change in appearance and manner that no one else can see (the “she’s not my sister” moments play like a variation on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”).

“January Joiner” is not for everyone — there were a few walk-outs at Thursday night’s performance — but it is a very provocative and very entertaining dramatization of an ever-present social and health issue.

(For performance and ticket information, visit www.longwharf.org)