This funny, touching production finds fun in a clashing of cultures.
Political correctness collides with real life in Annie Baker’s humane 2008 comedy Body Awareness. Theater J’s new production is funny, smart and emotionally on-target.
Several overly contrived moments in Baker’s script could easily lapse into preciousness, but director Eleanor Holdridge and her fine cast finesse them, reveling in the wit and wisdom of the script at its best and powering over the potholes.
Body Awareness is the first play Baker set in the fictional college town of Shirley, Vermont. Her more recent Circle Mirror Transformation, which Studio Theatre produced in 2010, also takes place there.
Body Awareness marinates, then gently skewers, the kind of linguistic and cultural parameters imposed by progressive academics, overzealous vegans, and other counterculturalists. Baker explores how good intentions can turn people into conversation-stifling, “don’t use that word” thought police. Yet she also shows how a progressive mindset can be a boon.
All seems serene as the play begins. Phyllis (Susan Lynskey), a psych professor at Shirley State College, stands at a podium in a tailored black pantsuit and addresses faculty members and students. She’s proud to launch Body Awareness Week, intended as a critical examination of American culture and how said culture affects the way we view our own bodies and those of others. Amid the lectures and panels will be multi-culti guest performers—a dance troupe from Palestine, a gospel-klezmer duo, and an exhibit in the student union by a male photographer who shoots nude photos of women and girls. Oops. That last one got past Phyllis.
The large screen behind her flies up to reveal Daniel Ettinger’s minimalist yet homey set—the cutaway interior of the A-frame house where Phyllis lives with her partner, Joyce. Pale wooden beams outline a master bedroom on a platform at the rear of the stage, and a country-style dining room and kitchen downstage, with breakfront, table and chairs, countertop, and sink.
Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), a high school teacher, is in mid-conversation with her 21-year-old son, Jared (Adi Stein), about masturbation. Jared lives at home and works at McDonald’s. Though bright and observant, he is socially inept, tactless, friendless, and dateless (and spends too much time on Internet sex sites). He always has an electric toothbrush in hand, which he shoves in his mouth whenever he feels stressed. Both Joyce and Phyllis feel Jared may have Asperger Syndrome, but he refuses therapy or testing.
Into this home brew drops photographer Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer), the creator of the photo exhibit of naked females that has Phyllis so up in arms. She feels that photos and paintings of naked women trap the female sex in “the male gaze.” Since he’s a guest artist in town for Body Awareness Week, Frank will be bunking at their house—and, naturally, is the catalyst that brings things to a boil. Is Joyce, who was once married, attracted to Frank? Is Frank trying to seduce her? Is Frank a sleazeball? Is he the man to give Jared some paternal advice about sex and women?
The entire cast hits bull’s-eyes in their characterizations, from Lynskey’s Phyllis, gentle-voiced and smiling but doctrinaire and easily threatened; to Wise’s Joyce, harried but more open; to Kramer’s cocky but ultimately decent photographer. As Jared, Stein is a true find. He burns with Jared’s keen intelligence, quails with his foibles, and makes them all seem of a piece.
Baker’s play overloads on issues, from campus political correctness to sexism to art to the overdiagnosis of Asperger. And Phyllis’s several interstitial “lecture” moments at Shirley State slow things down, though Lynskey makes her character’s ideological purity seem like a charming security blanket. A pivotal moment in the play—and, perhaps one of the reasons Theater J, which focuses on Jewish themes, chose to produce it—has the gentile Frank, who was married to a Jewish woman, decide they should “do” a shabbat dinner on a Tuesday night. Joyce lights candles and Frank sings Hebrew prayers. For Joyce, who is half-Jewish and quite secular, the moment becomes suddenly emotional. Near the end of the play, the shabbat moment gets a reprise, but by then it feels too artificial to work.
Body Awareness shows a deeply human and highly perceptive young playwright at work—a writer who leavens human idiocy with human grace. And Theater J is giving her play a lovely showcase.
Washington City Paper
Body Awareness By Annie Baker
By Chris Klimek • September 7, 2012
The Family That Frays Together: Campus body week wreaks household havoc.
Suggested timepasser for your next long car trip: Persuade your fellow passengers you don’t suffer from Asperger’s Disorder.
That’s the plight of Jared, the most memorable character in Body Awareness, the 2008 drama that cemented Annie Baker as an important new playwright. In the work’s local premiere at Theater J, Jared is, at 21, supercilious, dismissive, and even threatening to those he sees as his intellectual inferiors. Played with vulnerable pique by Adi Stein, Jared still lives at home, he’s prone to screaming fits, he’s never kissed a girl (or boy), and his favorite book is the Oxford English Dictionary. (He likes Crime & Punishment, too.) Having memorized the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s, he’s forever debating his way around them—“I’m listening and asking questions!”—while embodying every box on the checklist.
Completing the household is Jared’s mom’s live-in girlfriend, an academic professionally obsessed with “the fucking male gaze.” Bad luck, then, that the programming she’s arranged for fictional Shelley State’s Body Awareness Week—“not Eating Disorders Awareness Week,” she corrects us—includes billeting Frank, a visiting male photographer specializing in female nudes. When Jared’s mom seems responsive to Frank’s wandering silver-fox swagger, the deck of their happy if unconventional home begins to list.
As with Baker’s follow-up play, Circle Mirror Transformation, the humor here is keenly observed and absent any cruelty. In the role of Phyllis, the professor given to reading aloud from Womens’ Bodies, Womens’ Wisdom, Susan Lynskey never presents as a prude. Frank, as played by Michael Kramer, doesn’t become the predatory creep Phyllis assumes him to be. He even tries to give Jared some fatherly advice on how to approach women—and it would be sound advice, were Jared just an unusually shy kid and not afflicted by a behavioral disorder. That line is often faint or invisible, and there’s the rub.
The show’s quietest and best performance comes from MaryBeth Wise, who shows us her love for her hard-to-love son, her devotion to Phyllis, and her attraction to Frank in persuasive, almost entirely nonverbal ways. he shoe twirl she does as she begins to undress tells us everything about her own unfulfilled longings. In the space of a couple of seconds, we’re reminded that a committed, long-term relationships is a choice that demands sacrifice.
Mercifully, no one says that. That restraint is a hallmark of Baker’s writing. It extends to her affectionate jabs at politically correct campus culture, and it extends to where she chooses to leave us. Having rendered her characters fully, she advances their lives incrementally and steps away.
Washington Jewish Week
A kitchen-table drama 'Body Awareness' at Theater J
by Lisa Traiger
It's "Body Awareness Week" at fictional Shirley State College in the made-up town of Shirley, nestled in ever so politically correct Vermont. That means that Phyllis, a tightly wound psychology prof., is charged with a week of moderating extracurricular activities - plays, puppet theater, music groups, et al - to promote healthy consideration of bodies, particularly women's bodies in a world rife with hypersexualized images of the female. It's a smart, spiffy way to introduce Annie Baker's area premiere play, Body Awareness, which is onstage at the DCJCC's Theater J through Sept. 23. Phyllis, in her sleek black pant suit and horn-rimmed glasses, sharply played by Susan Lynskey, looks every bit as serious as the issues she touts: critical theory, feminism, and the male gaze among other liberal academic hot-button topics. That is, she's in control of all her high ideals until everything comes apart.
At home, with her partner Joyce and Joyce's 21-year-old socially inept son Jared, life does't run quite so smoothly. His mothers are convinced that Jared has a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome, which renders him bright and high functioning, yet unable to empathize and forge personal relationships. Jared? Not so much. He skimmed the Asperger's book his mother gave him and cried, "I'm not a retard." He shouts, bickers and threatens then oddly calms himself with an electric toothbrush. (Don't ask.) Then he reads the dictionary.
Playwright Annie Baker relishes the oddities and dysfunctions of this two-mother family so comfortably ensconced in the liberal and independent state of Vermont. All is well until an unlikely visitor, a visiting guest artist with the unusual name Frank Bonitatibus, throws off the equilibrium of this intertwined threesome. A photographer, Frank shoots every age and type of women in the nude and claims that his work is both freeing for his subjects and artistic expression of the highest order. Phyllis vehemently disagrees finding the very idea of a white male shooting nude women pornographic, and, as she watches this man's man with his rugged good looks charm her partner, the family begins to come apart at the seams.
Body Awareness is an old-fashioned kitchen-table drama, with much of the action and reaction taking place in the prep and eating area of the snug wood-framed house the two women share. Their conversations are quick, bright, wry, and disarmingly frank - with a bit of psychology-speak tossed on: "When you do this, I feel that." And, when they're not parsing art, Asperger's, feminist theory and their own relationship around the table, they're snuggled together upstairs in bed in set designer Daniel Ettinger's attractive and functional house with gorgeous sunrises from the window contributed by lighting designer Nancy Schertler.
Baker's intermissionless drama has its comic and quirky moments, which director Eleanor Holdridge mines for necessary laughs. But the undercurrent of the wit and weirdness is darker; amid the repartee, no one ever attempts to drag unspoken issues to the surface in Chekhovian fashion. Frank (Theater J regular Michael Kramer, here decked out in denim, plaid and cowboy boots like a Marlboro Man) is meant to disrupt, and obviously his masculine presence in a female-run household ignites discord. Yet, Jared (Adi Stein in a too-real portrait of a socially backward young adult), too, is taken by him, hungry for a male role model - and tips on finding a girlfriend.
While Baker, the playwright, is Jewish, Body Awareness has tenuous Jewish connections at best. Joyce claims being half Jewish at one point, while visitor Frank offers that he was once married to a Jew. Yet, they attempt a makeshift Shabbat dinner, on a Tuesday night no less. It becomes a calming element in the impending storm and an indication that this harried and troubled 21st-century family is seeking solace in a religion they hardly know or barely remember.
For Baker and Theater J, it's a testament to a stream of 21st-century Judaism where everyone's a Jew - or not - by choice. But, family, a central motif in Jewish theater and literature dating to the Bible, remains a fundamental and indestructable building block no matter one's century, state or choice of partner, Baker suggests.
Body Awareness is smart enough and funny enough to make for an enjoyable night at the theater, but it's neither memorable nor important enough to go the distance. Additionally, for theatergoers who might be easily offended by strong language and adult situations, this is not the play for them.