Theater Review: “Body Awareness” at Theater J

This funny, touching production finds fun in a clashing of cultures.

By: Jane Horwitz

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.

Body Awareness is playing at Theater J through September 23. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($25 to $60) are available via Theater J’s website.