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Body Awareness

Annie Baker's thoughtful comedy shows the kind of smiling humanity that ought to be endemic to playwriting. logo
JoBeth Williams, Mary McCann, Peter Friedman,
and Jonathan Clem in Body Awareness
(© Doug Hamilton)
There will probably be those who find debilitating fault with Annie Baker's comedy Body Awareness, making its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2, unable to resist the urge to haul out an adjective like "whimsical." I'll let them chatter on while thinking how I ate up the thoughtful 90-minute romp with a spoon.

The amusing action takes place on the small Shirley State College campus in Vermont, where lesbian couple Phyllis (Mary McCann) and Joyce (JoBeth Williams) are raising Joyce's 21-year-old son Jared (Jonathan Clem), whom they both worry has long been showing Asperger's Syndrome signs. Into the contemporary alternative family's midst comes visiting artist Frank Bonitatibus (Peter Friedman), a photographer who specializes in photographing naked women, a field of concentration that Joyce finds exciting and enlightening and Phyllis thinks is not only reprehensible but has the potential to undermine the wide-ranging Body Awareness Week events she's supervising.

Baker's play takes place over five days, during each of which Phyllis gives an in-one introduction to the Body Awareness Week attendees that is so silkily satirical of these sorts of enterprises that they could stand alone as a hilarious stand-up routine. The real action, however, takes place in the couple's household, where set designer Walt Spangler has placed a homey kitchen downstage and Phyllis and Joyce's comfy bedroom on an upstage platform. There, Baker unspools a series of scenes that follow the ever-evolving relationships between the three occupants and the briefly developing relationship between them and houseguest Frank. These sequences are so finely observed that the effect isn't unlike reading a piece of fiction on which Ann Beattie and Anne Tyler might have collaborated and Joni Mitchell might have set to music.

What Baker shows with the kind of smiling humanity that ought to be endemic to playwriting are the problems and little successes Phyllis and Joyce have negotiating a liaison between a fully-committed lesbian and a woman who has had a husband and an inclination for heterosexual bonds. She is equally sensitive to Phyllis and Joyce's parental concerns and to Jared's concurrent need to believe himself free of any deep-seated psychological impairment. But Baker's greatest gift is the ability to make every unfolding sequence absolutely natural.

Indeed, if anyone wants to point a finger at a question-mark in Baker's scheme, it could be her suggestion that in the Joyce-Phyllis same-sex relationship, a father figure is lacking and a man like Frank is required to step in. Such a viewpoint might be legitimate, but not everyone is likely to agree. Also, Baker raises the possibility that Frank's photos have created a noisy community stir, but she never follows through on it.

Still, Body Awareness wouldn't be nearly half as effective without the work of director Karen Kohlhaas and the impressive cast, of which Clem, a recent NYU graduate, is the real find. Looking startlingly like the late Brandon de Wilde, he plays the off-putting yet adorable Jared with the kind of assurance that should guarantee him enduring audience awareness.

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