Frank, Joyce, Phyllis and Jared perform a very strained seder.
REVIEW: Annie Baker's smart and touching new play takes place on a small Vermont campus where students are invited to "check in" with their attitudes about gender, bodies and identity.
"Body Awareness," a pithy 90-minute drama/comedy, spins around the shortcomings of political correctness, the limits of the family bond and the wild card of sexuality. Baker is an emerging playwright with a gently witty voice. Her knack for language, in all its slipperiness, grounds the laughs here in a kind of wistful feedback loop. The more these characters chatter, the less they are able to hear.
Certainly the campus-based comedy comes straight from the heart. Baker is the child of academics, and she drew on a childhood stewed in the crunchy-granola vibe of the New England college environment. So when she mocks the idiosyncrasies of ivory tower identity politics, she hits the bull's-eye.
When staunchly feminist professor Phyllis and her life partner Joyce invite a visiting artist named Frank to stay with them, they have no idea that he specializes in female nudes. The female body is his canvas, his obsession, and he's not afraid to admit that his work puts a bit of swagger in his step.
Joyce finds herself drawn to his photographs. Overweight and stuck in a house where everyone takes from her and no one gives back, she has begun to feel invisible. She responds to the fact that Frank photographs all manifestations of the female form, young and old, fat and thin, and he seems sincere to her.
But to Phyllis, taking naked pictures of girls is just this side of pornography. She sees Frank's career as an ugly offshoot of a zeitgeist that demeans women even when it claims to celebrate them.
We never quite know what holds Phyllis and Joyce together or whether Frank is an artist or a sleazeball. The most insightful commentary pertains to Joyce's son, Jared . He appears to suffer from Asperger's syndrome, which undermines his ability to feel empathy for others, even his mommies Joyce and Phyllis. Never without his electric toothbrush fetish and his dictionary, he's an odd bird stuck in a dead-end job at McDonald's while braying about his erudition ("I'm an autodidact!").
"Maybe you have Asperger's," he accuses his mother. "Because you're kind of an idiot. You've never read 'Crime and Punishment.' You're 55, and you've never read 'Crime and Punishment.' "
The 21-year-old Jared only feels comfortable reading the dictionary and/or watching porn. When he tries to reach out to people, he misfires. Big time. This is Jared trying to have empathy: "It must be hard to not be that pretty anymore. To get old." Jared is frustrated with a world where no one seems to think like him. He veers between sad little boy and seething volcano without descending into caricature.
Certainly Baker has an ear for the strained communication between people who ought to love each other but can't seem to connect.
PHYLLIS - 40s, an academic professor focused on women's issues. She and Joyce have been together for quite awhile, but things still get bumpy at times.
JOYCE - 40s, mother of Jared, who works hard at being a patient mother while trying to bring her son to some level of awareness of his impairment, and some acceptance as well.
FRANK - late 40s, confident, rather good looking, bright, positive, outgoing but also sensitive in his dealings with the household and particularly Jared.
JARED -21, suffers from Asperbergers Syndrome, about which he is in heavy denial, and is frustrated with his inability to connect socially with others without strains and misfires. Joyce is his mother.