A Self-Aware “Body Awareness”

Annie Baker's new play puts a smart spin on romantic comedy.

No one fled, or even winced, when Indigo Girls’ “Galileo” started wafting through the stereo speakers at Aurora Theatre on Sunday night, about five minutes before showtime. That alone says something about the audience for Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, a new play incubated by the company’s Global Age Project, which was launched to foster contemporary work by young playwrights. Baker’s play is aptly and at the same time deceptively titled, since it’s not actually about “body awareness” in the conventional sense. Rather, it’s largely about how bodies — and by extension, behaviors — come to represent a person’s psychology. It’s also a traditional romantic comedy, albeit with modern twists and insights.

The backdrop is Body Awareness Week, a week-long series of performance art, feminist lectures, and photography exhibits at Shirley State College, a small institution in rural Vermont. It was launched by a 45-year-old psychology professor named Phyllis, who wanted to find a more all-inclusive substitute for “eating disorder awareness week.” Phyllis is at once a free-minded thinker and a dyed-in-the-wool feminist; she subscribes to Susan Sontag’s theory of “the male gaze,” stocks her bookshelf with sexuality manuals, and disparages burlesque dance for being a veiled form of exploitation. Played by Amy Resnick, she’s the type of character whose dogmatism and salty sense of humor hide her insecurities. When she’s nervous, her eye twitches.

Body Awareness Week serves as a terrific framing device for a play that shuttles between abstract scholarship and reality. Half the scenes begin with Phyllis standing at a lectern, imparting wisdom on “image ownership” and objectification; the rest take place at home, where she’s trying to make sense of family dynamics through an academic lens. Phyllis’ girlfriend Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) is flirting with a sleazebag photographer, Frank (Howard Swain), who specializes in female nudes. Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared (Patrick Russell) appears to suffer from a textbook case of Asperger’s syndrome. Again and again, Phyllis tries to set everything right by imposing logic: Frank has no business taking pictures of underage girls; Jared needs to see a therapist; Joyce needs to explain her passive-aggressiveness. But in this environment, appeals to reason fall flat.

Most of the subject matter is relatively new, even for a modern audience — hence the definition of Asperger’s included in the program notes. But Baker and director Joy Carlin don’t waste a lot of time with exposition. Rather, characters reveal themselves through their proclivities. Phyllis has her eye twitching, Jared fetishizes his electric toothbrush, Frank — who is easily the most self-possessed, if smarmiest, character — has a glaringly phallic baroque recorder. (Actually, he has two of them.) The only person who doesn’t seem to have tics is Joyce, but she does look visibly uncomfortable in her own body, always dressing in baggy clothes that conceal flesh and deemphasize shape. Character actions often predetermine their interactions. Frank asserts his presence in a room by straddling a chair, rather than just sitting in it. During a particularly dramatic moment with Joyce, he cavalierly noshes a cheese cube.

Such things help lead the audience to conclusions without necessarily casting judgment. And granted, some of the issues in Baker’s script lie in a moral gray area. Sure, there’s nothing condonable about child pornography, and it would be hard to argue that Jared doesn’t fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. But other parts of the story are squishier — like the idea that Joyce has to be punished for flirting outside her relationship, or Phyllis’ claim that all forms of female exhibitionism tie back to the male gaze. Toward the end, Joyce hazards a counter-argument — that it can be empowering to participate in your own exploitation.

Through all that dense philosophical hand-wringing, Baker has managed to construct a genuinely funny comedy. Joyce’s bickering with Jared will ring true for anyone who has had an overbearing mother. Frank’s Cheshire Cat grin and devilish sweep of hair make him seem villainous in an almost campy way, but he plays the stereotypes well enough to be believed. And Baker larded the script with pop-culture references that make it seem hip and smart; Phyllis’ quoting of Deepak Chopra earned more cackles than any other line.

Like many of the newer-school plays that have come to Aurora in recent years — Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating and Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig come to mind — Body Awareness resembles a sitcom, with its fast-paced scenes that end in punch lines, an endlessly mutable set design (it can transform from living room to lecture hall with the removal of a single piece), and no intermission. In this case, the dialogue is so fast and dense and quippy that none is really necessary. Baker is only thirty years old, but she’s created a play that’s smart enough to go Off-Broadway. It relies on a few familiar tropes — like the Indigo Girls, whose music is winkingly appropriate for a play about a lesbian couple — but presents them in a bright new light.


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