The Cold War is a pretense for hot sex in The Wooster Group's latest revival of North Atlantic, which was first staged back in 1983. Set aboard a unisex aircraft carrier off the Dutch coast that same year, James Strahs's opaque play concerns a group of Navy intelligence officers tasked with decrypting Cold War communications. But that's just a cover; their real mission is finding a way to release their nuclear-charged sexual frustration. And since this is showbiz, albeit of the avant-garde variety, what better way to blow off steam than through elaborate song and dance numbers? (The show's title is itself a winking nod to Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific.)
As always with the Wooster Group, the "story" is elusive and subtextual, this time swimming around somewhere in the depths of Strahs's rather inscrutable script. But there's no need to spend the 90-minute performance scratching your head over North Atlantic's kooky narrative, because the action ricocheting across the surface of this bustling aircraft carrier is so engrossing. Jim Clayburgh's impressive set features a startlingly raked stage, on which the phenomenal ensemble (Frances McDormand, Scott Shepherd, Zachary Oberzan, Steve Cuiffo, Ari Fliakos, Koosil-ja, Paul Lazar, Jenny Seastone Stern, Maura Tierney, and Kate Valk) alternately slides, rappels, dances, defies gravity, and somehow maintains a breathtaking balance.
Fliakos plays a hyper Naval Captain locking horns with Shepherd's Army Colonel over interrogation methods, code-cracking techniques, and the quality of their vulgar jokes. Lazar is the lecherous General who keeps a stable of female intelligence analysts as his own personal harem; they're stationed up above on that precariously steep platform, at a long table equipped with spools of tape and other bits of mysterious analog technology. The complex, mechanistic choreography executed up there is spellbinding, and continues throughout the play even when there's no music. But it's when the ensemble breaks into song (music selections range from "Back in the Saddle" to "There's a Place in France") that the whole frenetic craft becomes airborne.
In an interview with Time Out, McDormand says that an earlier production of North Atlantic served as a Wooster Group recruitment vehicle, prompting her to ask artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte to "sign me up." This is her second appearance with the long-lived troupe (she first wet her feet with To You, The Birdie! in 2002), and though one wishes she had more of a starring role here, she perfectly complements Wooster Group veteran Kate Valk. It's a stellar cast, but nobody steals the show here; the ensemble operates frenetically as one whirring unit to evoke a singular world of isolated, Cold War cabin fever on the high seas.