‘Cloud Nine’ review: A powerful revival in a cramped space

Are you willing to endure an extremely uncomfortable seating arrangement for a fine revival of one of the most dynamic English dramas of the past four decades?

First seen in New York in 1981, “Cloud Nine” stands with “Top Girls” as one of the best-known plays of Caryl Churchill, who has explored feminism, sexism and more with unpredictable methods of storytelling.

The farcical first act, in which Churchill equates sexual repression with colonial repression, is set among an English family in Africa in the late 19th century.

Cross-gender and cross-racial casting is employed to expose the characters. For instance, Betty, the helpless wife of self-loving, hypocritical patriarch Clive (the hammy Clarke Thorell), is played by Chris Perfetti; their effeminate son Edward is played by Brooke Bloom; and the African servant Joshua, who spurns his racial ancestry, is played by Sean Dugan.

Chaos erupts throughout Act One, as the characters engage in secret sexual escapades and the locals prepare to revolt against the English.

The second act, which is more like a contemporary relationship drama, is set a century later in England, but the characters are only 25 years older, and are played by different actors.

Betty (now played by Bloom) has left Clive and is trying to adjust to independent living, while Edward (played by Perfetti) is a lonely gay man, and his sister Victoria (Lucy Owen) explores her feelings for another woman.

Eventually, the two worlds of “Cloud Nine” converge, and it ends with a sympathetic embrace between Betty of Act One and Act Two.

James Macdonald has staged the revival in-the-round, with audience members sitting on tight benches around a small wooden arena. It’s uncomfortable and, despite the added intimacy, unnecessary. But if you can withstand the lack of legroom, “Cloud Nine” is experimental, highly political playwriting at its best.

If you go: “Cloud Nine” plays through Nov. 1 at Atlantic Theater Company. 336 W. 20th St., atlantictheater.org.