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Washington Post 

‘Body Awareness’ at Theater J: Real problems couched in funny business

By Nelson Pressley

At first glance, the ingredients of playwright Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness” may seem sitcom simple. Take a Vermont lesbian couple — Joyce, a high school cultural studies teacher, and Phyllis, a feminist academic — and their 21- year-old son, Jared, who may have Asperger’s and who trawls the naughty stuff on the Internet. Add an extremely macho visiting artist named Frank Bonitatibus who photographs nude women and girls.

Combine during a consciousness-raising “Body Awareness” week on Phyllis’s progressive campus (Shirley State College). Stir gently.

The result in the easygoing “Body Awareness” is indeed very funny, skewering everything from the professor’s pretensions to the blunt sex talk Frank delivers to Jared (who soothes his non-diagnosed but screamingly obvious disorder by sucking an electric toothbrush). The actors in Eleanor Holdridge’s unflaggingly entertaining production at Theater J plainly love this stuff, and they look good in it: Baker’s dialogue is tart and personable, with just enough unexpected twists in the characterizations to keep you leaning forward.

As with “Circle Mirror Transformation,” seen here two years ago at the Studio Theatre, the pleasures of “Body Awareness” go deeper than the high-concept stereotypes that Baker flirts with. Baker is fast becoming one of the country’s more popular playwrights — the Studio is producing another of her Vermont plays, “The Aliens,” this fall — and it may be because she has a lovely ability to comically mock types and trends while exposing the raw seams in her characters.

At Theater J, that’s most evident in Susan Lynskey’s extremely deft and engaging performance as Phyllis. It’s easy to send up the kind of feminism that detects the evil male gaze everywhere, and with her misadventures introducing the pompous programming on campus, the character could easily come across as a brittle joke.

But Lynskey doesn’t settle for a lampoon, not even when the creepy Frank trips her jealousy wire as he inevitably begins to get his hooks in Joyce (who is vulnerable to Frank’s come-ons in part because of Phyllis’s snobbery and ultimatums). Broad as she is, this Phyllis is too bruised for pure satire; Lynskey is attuned to Baker’s clues about the hurt and fragility knocking Phyllis off balance, and the actress’s reflectiveness draws you in.

Holdridge’s ensemble are all in sync on this point: The people have real problems couched in funny business. Punch lines are landed cleanly by one and all, and you get to know the figures so well that even the well-timed revving up of the toothbrush gets laughs. Adi Stein, acting with terse aggressiveness, is especially riotous as Jared, whose explosions are particularly vicious. Jared’s mother Joyce comes in for some of the sharpest insults, but Jared’s absence of social skills also leads to a severe puncturing of political correctness as the kid, in one of Baker’s most wicked moments, sabotages his own employment at McDonald’s.

MaryBeth Wise does lovely work as Joyce, the fretful mother and seemingly junior partner in the romantic relationship. (The psychological beats within the cozy house, which has a Pottery Barn vibe in Daniel Ettinger’s calculatedly rustic set, are splendidly timed all night.) Michael Kramer juicily renders the ludicrous Frank as a dude in boots and jeans with a self-serving outlaw stance on his nude pix — er, art.

There are moments when Baker seems to force the awkwardness, particularly when Frank first intrudes on the already idiosyncratic household. But mainly the agendas joust pleasingly, with Baker’s fragile warriors comically, and even touchingly, stabbing at sense.



Washingtonian

Theater Review: “Body Awareness” at Theater J

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.


MD Theatre Guide

Theatre Review: ‘Body Awareness’ at Theater J

By April Forrer

Theater J, at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, presents Body Awareness by Annie Baker, as the opening of their themed THIS IS WHO WE ARE:  Beginnings, Belonging, Becoming and Breaking Through 2012-2013 Theater season.

With Body Awareness, Annie Baker gives the audience a peek through a window into the home of lovers Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) and Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) as well as Joyce’s son Jared (Adi Stein).  The view is loving, engaging, and many times gut-wrenchingly revealing.

It is Body Awareness Week at Shirley State College in Vermont, and Psychology professor Phyllis is unwavering in her task to find speakers and performers who reinforce her viewpoint that women must take “ownership” of their body image.  Women should not look to others, especially men, to define what is beautiful; it must come from within.

Phyllis’s eye begins twitching when she learns that visiting photographer, Frank Bonitaibus (Michael Kramer), is exhibiting his female nude portraits during her Body Awareness Week and these nude portraits, she believes, objectify women by giving the “ownership” of body image directly to men.  “The whole thing is like a joke now.  I bring in a nutritionist, I bring in a race and gender panel, I bring in a _____ domestic violence quilt, and then we have exploitative nude photographs … hanging in the Student Union.”

The play weaves it way through the family’s issues of identity, sexuality, and gender roles to form a beautiful and colorful picture of a modern family. 

Phyllis then comes home to find Frank is their houseguest, and as her stress level increases, so does her eye twitching.  Joyce and Frank greet Phyllis on her arrival, but Phyllis is incensed over the obvious chemistry between the two of them.   Frank is a man’s man, and Kramer does a great job in looking and portraying everything a man is supposed to be.   He drinks beer, crudely expresses himself, wears flannel shirts, jeans and clunky boots, and really loves to see women without their clothes on; and Joyce is captivated.

Frank also makes a big impact on Joyce’s son, Jared.  Raised with two women, he and Joyce begin to wonder if his quirky behavior is brought on by a suspected diagnosis of Asperger syndrome or it is the result of his lack of a father figure in his life.   Phyllis is convinced Jared has Asperger’s syndrome; Jared, Joyce, and Frank are not.

The play weaves it way through the family’s issues of identity, sexuality, and gender roles to form a beautiful and colorful picture of a modern family.  In fact, the entire cast is consistently believable in their roles.  You will find yourself so lost in the lives of these people that you will find yourself hoping they will forget to close the window each night so you can continue watching.


DC Metro Theatre Arts

‘Body Awareness’ at Theater J 

Body Awareness, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, is set in the fictional Vermont town of Shirley and revolves around the non-traditional family formed by Phyllis (Susan Lynskey), a psychology professor at Shirley State College, her high school teacher girlfriend, Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), and Joyce’s genius, introverted, possibly autistic son, Jared (Adi Stein). This play expertly weaves together themes of mother-son tension, jealousy, feminism, love, family, male vs. female issues, and self revelation and discovery. Baker tempers the tension with many moments of humor.

Jared (Adi Stein) emphatically claims to Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) and Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) that he is not “retarded” and that he does not have Aspberger’s. 

Phyllis is an ‘enlightened’ woman, what some might call a feminist, so instead of participating in ‘National Eating Disorder Week’ at Shirley State College, she has decide to rename the week ‘Body Awareness Week’ and has planned a week of artists, speakers, and exhibits that encourages a more positive view and acceptance of ones own body. While it may seem like Phyllis has it ‘all together,’ her home life is rather contentious as the tensions between her, Joyce, and Jared continue to rise. Phyllis and Joyce’s relationships is not only burdened with their past but they are further burdened by Jared’s presence and the possibility that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome. They have given Jared a book about Asperger’s in hopes that after he reads it he will agree that he may have Asperger’s and seek treatment.

It only gets worse when Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer), one of the visiting artists, arrives to stay with Phyllis and Joyce. Joyce is mesmerized and drawn to Frank’s photographs. Phyllis, used to being the one in control, is deeply offended by Frank’s photographic exhibit and calls it “crass, exploitative photography on the verge of pornorgraphy” and can’t understand why Joyce is so connected with the photographs and with Frank. Jared also sees Frank as the missing father figure and seeks his advice on meeting girls. Tensions come to a head when Joyce decides to pose nude for one of Frank’s photographs. Will this non-traditional family of three, who obviously love each other, be able to overcome their differences and help Jared?

Frank (Michael Kramer) and Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) contemplate what is more important in art – the artist’s intention in the creation or the viewer’s interpretation. 

The majority of the story, as with many family related interactions, takes place in the kitchen/dining room and in Phyllis and Joyce’s bedroom. Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger and Lighting Designer Nancy Shertler use a window set in the bedroom and contrast the idyllic nature of the outside world with the tensions in the house. They use a PowerPoint presentation to help the audience envision the various artists that have been invited to perform, speak, or exhibit at the college for ‘Body Awareness Week’ – including a Pakistani Refugee Children Dance Troupe, and a puppet show.

The casting is perfection. Lynskey’s condescending tones and snobbish mannerisms are spot on. Wise’s portrayal of the many facets of Joyce’s character – a loving mother, but a little unsure of herself, and becoming more self aware and assertive – is done with such ease and allows the viewer to see a little bit of themselves in her. Kramer’s Frank is charismatic and charming, and utterly “male.” Stein’s portrayal as the brilliant yet introverted Jared is amazingly touching. He moves from being violent and threatening, to brilliant and sarcastic with such ease. His valiant effort to prove that he doesn’t have Asperger’s is both humorous and heart-wrenching and makes you want to reach out, hold him tight, and tell him everything will be alright.

Body Awareness is an honest, yet fascinating and funny look into what it means to be part of a family (even if it’s a non-traditional one) and how we, as ordinary, flawed human beings can make connections with each other. Don’t miss it!




Broadway World Washington

BWW Reviews: Theater J's Strong Season Opener BODY AWARENESSFeedbackPrintE-mail 0
 
Wednesday, September 5, 2012; 10:09 PM - by Jennifer Perry

Theater J, known for its productions of plays that enhance social and political consciousness, is starting its 2012-2013 season out strong with the DC premiere of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, first seen at New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company in 2008. Much of the success of this production can be attributed to the cast under the direction of Eleanor Holdridge, but the strength of the script cannot be overlooked. Solid production values round out this commendable effort.

The play, at its core, focuses on the role of family structure, sexual identity and experience, and perceptions of one’s self in shaping how one sees the world and responds to events- both the mundane and the surprising. Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) is a professor at Shirley State College in Vermont who is focused on taking an intellectual, yet socially-informed approach to raising awareness of body issues among the student population during a campus-wide week of programming. She is in a committed relationship with Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), a high school teacher getting over past relationship experiences with men.  Joyce has a 21 year old son, Jared (Adi Stein), who is more than a bit socially awkward though highly intelligent. When a male photographer (Frank Bonitatibus, played by Michael Kramer) comes to town to present at the college’s series of symposia on body issues and stays with Phyllis and her family, Joyce, Phyllis, and Jared make choices that will forever change not only family dynamics, but also their individual life paths.

It’s clear that Baker has a strong playwriting voice and a penchant for writing complex socially-conscious works filled with snappy, insightful, and interesting dialogue and social commentary.   While she is quite successful at focusing her issue-based exploration on a singular story about a singular family unit, her script’s strength- multi-dimensional complexity-, might also be its weakness. The 3-member family deals with an array of issues that have received media attention in recent years: same-sex parenting, the challenge of overcoming bad sexual experiences, struggles with disability (the son may or may not have Asperger’s Syndrome), female perceptions of their own bodies, and the value of academic pursuits among others. No one family can deal with all of that, right?

Whether realistic or not (and that’s up for debate), it’s likely that if another (less adept) playwright tried to take on all of these issues in 90 minutes of dialogue, it would be an epic disaster. Baker’s play is not an epic disaster by any means (in fact it is from it- she weaves the issues together amazingly well), but I wonder if the play’s overall message would be even stronger and/or more resonant with audiences if the family she’s created didn’t deal with “everything but the kitchen sink.”

Theater J has assembled a very strong cast to take on this complex work. The cast is strongest when engaging together in the family dining room scenes, but all 4 cast members have their standout moments. Recent college graduate Adi Stein has the most interesting (and perhaps most difficult) character to portray. He very carefully balances his portrayal of Jared’s awkwardness/differentness with his intellectual curiosity.  Playing someone who might have Asperger’s Syndrome could lead some actors to overplay the character to the point of being cartoonish, but Stein avoids this trap like a consummate professional.  He’s delightfully human, quirky, compelling, charming, engaging, and honest. I look forward to seeing his career develop. He has a strong future ahead of him.

Lynskey, as Phyllis, is both neurotic yet intellectually grounded. Her spot-on portrayal of a nerdy academic who takes work very, very seriously is noteworthy. With Lynskey it is easy to see how Phyllis’ education impacts not only her career choice and views on macro social issues, but how she views and deals with the more personal issues her family faces. Wise, as Joyce, makes very appropriate acting choices when engaging with her often-frustrating son. She makes clear that she understands that her character is deeply influenced by past experiences, but is desperate to overcome them. Her portrayal is both heartbreaking and natural.  Kramer, as outsider/instigator Frank, is perfectly acerbic. He makes it clear that Frank’s not easily swayed by the situations that swirl around him- an essential acting choice for this play.


The strong actors are backed by equally impressive production elements, particularly in terms of physical setting and costumes. Daniel Ettinger’s realistic and simple scenic design and Joshua Rosenblum’s prop designs are appropriate for a small, rustic Vermont home. Kelsey Hunt’s costume design makes it clear that none of the characters are swayed by modern fashion trends, but are rather non-materialistic intellectuals in rural Vermont. Her designs provide additional insight on the things the characters value.

Overall, I’d recommend this production and look forward to what else Theater J offers Washington audiences this season.


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