Douglas MacArthur once boasted of the U.S. Marines, “There is not a finer fighting organization in the world!” Clearly, the general’s experience did not extend to the corps members in James Strahs’s 1982 Cold War fantasia North Atlantic, revived by the Wooster Group.
Anchored off the Dutch coast some 500 miles away from any real action, these Marines busy themselves with singing country ballads, preparing for a “Wet Uniform Contest,” and reciting some of the filthiest dialogue ever to echo onstage. Ensign Ann Pusey (the invaluable Kate Valk) describes her colleague Jane (Maura Tierney), as “Loose! Why, my goodness, General, you could drive a dump truck down that alley and K-turn without even using a rearview mirror.” Such a declaration may sound crude, but given the comments that follow, it comes to seem almost euphemistic.
On a heavily raked set, designed by Jim Clayburgh, the cast slips and stamps while reciting Strahs’s lines in rapid-fire fashion. Some of these phrases are abstruse; many are far too sexually explicit. But Elizabeth LeCompte’s hurried staging doesn’t permit lingering on textual niceties. Just when you feel you’ve almost grasped a character or a situation, the action moves on and—hey!—why are they waterboarding that nice Army officer? While Wooster Group regulars Valk and Scott Shepherd (as the damp torturee, Ned) give the most engaging performances, downtowners Paul Lazar and Jenny Seastone Stern also acquit themselves awfully well, while Tierney and her fellow film star, Frances McDormand, are invariably game.
Strahs’s script and LeCompte’s production sends up war movies, sly thrillers, Westerns, and the midcentury American musical. It also offers a pointed critique of masculinity’s libidinousness and swagger. But much of North Atlantic functions as a mere goof, an amiable excuse to indulge in dirty jokes, formal gowns, and hula dancing. Toward the play’s end, Ann asks, “Do you have any idea what it’s about?” Ned replies, “I ain’t got a clue.”