“This is a weird town,” observes Frank, a visiting photographer, of Shirley, Vt., in Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness.”
“It’s small,” offers Jared, the son of Frank’s hosts, by way of explanation.
“Small and weird,” Frank mutters.
Although most of “Body Awareness”—directed by Paul Daigneault in a SpeakEasy Stage Company production at the Boston Center for the Arts—takes places in the home of Phyllis (Adrianne Krstanksy) and her partner Joyce (Paula Plum), it immediately becomes clear that the show’s exploration of empathy and political correctness is as much an appreciation of the charming weirdness of Baker’s fictional college town as it is about the experiences of this unconventional family. Its amiable performances and polished production save “Body Awareness” from falling victim to flaws in storytelling and character, and it proves to be an entertaining and rambunctious—if insubstantial—visit to a town rich with contradictions.
The story follows the conflicts that ensue when women’s studies professor Phyllis, who is organizing Body Awareness Week at Shirley State University, volunteers to host Frank (Richard Snee), a photographer famous for his provocative female nudes. Phyllis feels threatened by Frank’s “objectifying” photography even as Joyce is drawn to his unflappable joie de vivre. In a mostly parallel storyline that never fully integrates with the Phyllis-Joyce-Frank triangle, Jared (Gregory Pember), in denial about his Asperger’s Syndrome, becomes increasingly erratic as he tries to prove to his mothers that he can have a normal social life.
One flaw in the play’s script mitigates another: It is so overstuffed with action, conflict, and symbols that the plot’s melodrama never fully sinks in. This combined with the characters’ humorous banter, makes for entertaining if not thought-provoking viewing. In particular, Snee’s wry portrayal of Frank injects balance and levity into a dynamic that might otherwise be weighed down by the other characters’ neuroses.
Given Baker’s clear talent for crackling, observant dialogue, it is surprising that her portrayal of Phyllis is so far off the mark. The character is intended as a gentle send-up of academia, but Phyllis is portrayed as unable to say anything remotely intelligent about gender studies. The interludes in which she introduces events for Body Awareness Week are painful not only for her difficulty with public speaking, but for her obvious ignorance of the topics she discusses.
“There’s the gaze,” she says in the particularly insipid final speech, “and the white male, and the white male gaze, and they all relate back to each other!” She refers to “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom” for “quotes to use in [her] speech” and typically enough, reads “Middlesex” in bed. Academics share many qualities that deserve to be satirized, but in general, ignorance about their field is not among them. It is ultimately unclear whether Baker simply does not understand gender studies beyond platitudes from “Women’s Bodies,” or if Phyllis is simply an extremely misguided parody. Just as one begins to accept her rather implausible personality, she does an about face, embracing Frank and letting go of her dogmatic political correctness—an abrupt shift that is weakly motivated by the preceding events.
The script’s rough patches belie the gorgeous technical execution; there are no curtains at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, the better for the audience to admire Cristina Todesco’s elaborate set design. The action takes place entirely inside Phyllis and Joyce’s home, and the set’s careful detail—the worn board games, the frumpy dishtowels, the hodgepodge of refrigerator magnets—and warm color scheme do as much to expose the dynamic between the characters as the action and the dialogue. Similar attention is lavished on the costumes, which are keenly attuned to the characters’ sensibilities and insecurities.
If “Body Awareness” falls short as a satire of liberal academia, it succeeds as a portrait of a family—its most entertaining and insightful moments are not the confrontations between Joyce and Phyllis, but rather the quotidian interactions as the characters try to live with their guest and with each other. The comedic climax, when Joyce, Phyllis, and Jared attempt to recreate the Seder that Frank demonstrates in the first act, is more poignant than their tearful arguments just moments before. Ultimately, the script of “Body Awareness” has both heart and charisma—it’s just not where Baker seems to think it is.
—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at email@example.com.
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