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A CurtainUp Review
Body Awareness

If you are angry at me just say it. You don't have to insult me. You can say: I'm feeling really angry right now Mom— Joyce

I'm not angry. I'm surrounded by imbeciles. You don't even. . .you don't even read the dictionary! — Jared
 Body Awareness
Mary McCann and JoBeth Williams in Body Awareness (Photo: Doug Hamilton)
Psychological insecurity and physiological instability are the key dramatic elements in Annie Baker's disarming new play Body Awareness. There is potential for an atypical family healing when Phyllis, a middle-aged Lesbian academic, her formerly married slightly younger lover, her lover's 21 year-old live-in son and a house-guest/photographer are mutually affected by an event: Body Awareness week at Shirley State College.

The setting is a small college town in Vermont, where this highly anticipated event serves as the catalyst for an outsider to initiate a change in three people who live together, yet need to take a closer look at each other. Walt Spangler's nicely designed interior setting also serves as the college lecture hall. The fine acting by Mary McCann, Jobeth Williams, Peter Friedman and Jonathan Clem (making his Off Broadway debut) and the sharp direction by Karen Kahlhaas keenly define Baker's diverting characters.

Slipping under the radar is easy for a new play by a relatively unknown playwright, but it helps to have a world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company known for its adventurous nurturing of new plays. Baker's play is not only marking her Off Broadway debut, but auspiciously marks the final production of the 2007-2008 season at Atlantic's Stage 2 where only two plays are staged each year. (Ethan Coen's Almost an Evening was a notable success, with an extended run at the Atlantic's main Off Broadway stage.

Phyllis (McCann) has her hands full coordinating the week-long event with each day devoted to one guest speaker. Although she and her lover Joyce (Jobeth Williams) have been together three years, the relationship is stressed by the unpredictable behavior of Joyce's socially-challenged but intellectually bright son Jared (Jonathan Clem) who hates his job at the local McDonald's. Though not officially diagnosed, Jared has all the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism characterized partly by an inability for social interaction). His mental prowess and highly volatile behavior notwithstanding, Jared is obsessed with etymology and his goal is to be a lexicographer. Even more unsettling and dismaying for Phyllis is finding out that Frank Bonitatibus (Peter Friedman), the guest lecturer they are hosting, is a free lance photographer of nude women of all ages.

From Phyllis' perspective, Frank is merely an exploitive middle-aged male. She perceives their twice-divorced guest as an enemy, particularly given Joyce's warm and receptive attitude. Yet the hardly threatening, Frank is effortlessly ingratiating and to everyone's surprise even initiates the Sabbath ritual prayerbefore they eat, despite the fact that it is Tuesday evening. Frank isn't Jewish but he does know the prayer, having been married to a Jew for 10 years. Much to Phyllis' chagrin, there is something about Frank that prompts Joyce to consider posing for him. Frank also initiates a fatherly interest in Jared who's still a virgin and fixated on getting laid.

McCann, a founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company, is excellent as Phyllis who is steadfastly resistant to believing in Frank's artistic integrity. Phyllis especially resents his apparent influence on Joyce who she worries may have more than a friendly interest in him. Williams, who though mainly known for her roles in the films Poltergeist (1 & 2), gives a warm, persuasive performance as a parent who won't concede defeat or failure even in the face of her son's incorrigible behavior. Clem keeps a tight grip on every nuance of Jared's fractured personality. Although Friedman always gives more than the script demands, his character presumably is meant to seem remote and perhaps even spiritually enlightened at the same time.

There is an unpretentious honesty to the dialogue that keeps us empathetic to the characters. While not a great play by any means, Body Awareness is observant about the mutability of our relationships and how fragile people become when confronted by the unexpected. The resolution is a bit pat, but it leaves you with a smile and perhaps willing (if the situation should arise) to pose happily for your own family snap shot. . .with or without your clothes on.

Body Awareness
By Annie Baker
Directed by Karen Kohlhaas

Cast: Jonathan Clem, Peter Friedman, Mary McCann, JoBeth Williams
Setting: Walt Spangler
Costumes: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lights: Jason Lyons
Running Time: 1 Hour 35 minutes (no intermission)
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street (212) 279 4200
Tickets ($42)
Performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM; Saturday matinees at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Opened 06/4/08 Ends 06/22/08
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/03/08
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