The Wooster Group began its toils nearly 15 years ago within the black-walled confines of a 99-seat performing space in Soho that had formerly been a garage. Since then, as it has toured the world, cementing its reputation as America’s most exciting and original theater company, the group seems to perform more and more rarely on home turf – largely because of the growing fame of Spalding Gray, who co-founded the company with director Elizabeth LeCompte and others before launching his career as a monologuist (Swimming to Cambodia), and actor Willem Dafoe (the Oscar nominee for Platoon, soon to be seen as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ). 

But the Wooster Group returns to the Performing Garage this week for ten special benefit performances of North Atlantic, which has had successful runs in Washington and in Boston but hasn’t been shown in New York since it premiered in 1984. Besides offering old fans and new converts a peek at a rarely-seen work, the two-week run is also a reunion of sorts: for the first time in several years, the group’s excellent acting ensemble – besides Gray and Dafoe, it includes Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Peyton Smith, Nancy Reilly, Anna Kohler, and Michael Stumm – will be seen onstage at the same time.

The Wooster Group is best known for its wild theatrical collages of music, film, video, dance, original texts, and classic plays. Their major works fall into two trilogies, “Three Places in Rhode Island” – Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, and Nayatt School with its epilogue, Point Judith – and “The Road to Immortality,” which includes Route 1 & 9, L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…), and Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. Several of these are notorious for incorporating skewed distillations of well-known plays. Route 1 & 9 roused controversy by juxtaposing soap-opera video excerpts of Our Town with a Pigmeat Markham vaudeville routine performed in blackface; L.S.D., which at one point featured fractured scenes from The Crucible, was shut down by lawyers for Arthur Miller.

Within the Wooster Group canon, North Atlantic is something of an anomaly. Written by Jim Strahs (who contributed a text called “Rig” to Point Judith), it was the first play the Wooster Group ever performed in toto, though in recent years the group has collaborated with writer-director Richard Foreman on two of his plays, Miss Universal Happiness and Symphony of Rats. But the plays that the Wooster Group undertakes are no less radical and disorienting than their theater pieces. They all must be called “difficult” texts – dense, plotless, more like absurdly comic snapshots of human consciousness than psychological dramas.

North Atlantic takes place on an aircraft carrier 12 miles off the Dutch coast, where some sort of intelligence-gathering mission is in progress. The premise of the play is that the ship’s crew of “nurse/word- processor girls,” led by Ensign Ann Pusey (Kate Valk), is preparing a Wet Uniform Context to entertain the ship’s horny captain, General “Rod” Benders (played by – who else? – Spalding Gray), and his men, including rival studs “Ned” Lud (Willem Dafoe) and Roscoe Chizzum (Ron Vawter). On both the sexual and political fronts, Strahs makes language the primary vehicle of hostility. The (mostly invented) sexual slang that his characters toss around constitutes a code as silly and sinister as any military cryptography. If you think David Mamet’s characters are macho pottymouths, you should check out North Atlantic, in which the women give the men a run for their money. “Loose?” Ensign Pusey says about one of her comrades. “Why, my goodness, General, you could drive a dump-truck down that alley and K-turn without even using the rear-view mirror.”

Originally conceived as a segment of L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…), Strahs’ play started out as a twisted adaptation of South Pacific. All that remains of that idea is the wartime setting, the title pun, and the musical numbers (by Eddy Dixon) that punctuate the scenes. The play was first performed as a collaboration with the Globe Theater Company in Eindhoven, Holland, where it also incorporated scenes from a classic Dutch play called The Good Ship Hope. If Strahs’ idiosyncratic English baffled Dutch audiences, the scenes in Dutch apparently infuriated them. “I had the feeling they were bored with their past, they didn’t want to see any Dutch culture, and they didn’t like the Dutch actors,” LeCompte told me. “They liked the American actors because they don’t act like they’re doing Chekhov all the time. They’re Americans – they act like, you know, bimbos!”

The Wooster Group’s unique performance style – vaudevillean raucousness abruptly cross-cut with movie-close-up naturalism – comes from the intimacy of having performed together for more than a decade in work that allows the performers to float free of the traditional demands on actors. In many ways, this theater troupe is more like a rock band or a dance company and provides the same pleasures of familiar faces offering new (often outrageous) variations on an established repertoire. If North Atlantic lacks some of the bracing, high-tech sensationalism that director LeCompte and designer Jim Clayburgh bring to the group’s major works, it’s still enjoyable, if only to watch the brilliant ensemble act like, you know, bimbos.

7 Days, June 8, 1988