Bay Area Theater Review: BODY AWARENESS (Aurora Theatre in Berkeley)

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by Tony Frankel on February 8, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

PLAYWRIGHT AWARENESS

With three produced plays under her belt, Annie Baker is quickly becoming THE playwright to watch in the American Theatrical landscape. Her first play, Body Awareness (originally staged Off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theater Company in 2008), is currently receiving a marvelous rendering at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, and has been rightfully praised in productions from around the nation.

Her second play, Circle Mirror Transformation – about five everyday folks in a Vermont community center’s drama class – premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2009. Baker has stated that there is an obsession with pace in the theater, with things being very fast and loud. In Circle, she slowed down the dialogue by adding silences and stillness. Stage and Cinema’s Harvey Perr found the play breathtakingly original, while, for me, the silences sometimes felt more like a device than a Pinterian pause which drips with meaning. Even so, it has been a year since I saw Circle, and both the production and my reaction to it haunt me still.

Baker’s third play, The Aliens, takes the construction of Circle’s dialogue a step further. The playwright notated that at least a third of the play is silence, so the slackers in The Aliens who inhabit the slovenly alley behind a Vermont coffeehouse are in no rush to get to the next line. The NY Times’ Charles Isherwood called it an extraordinarily beautiful and inordinately delicate new play (it shared the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play with Circle Mirror Transformation). Just two months ago, The Aliens was translated into Russian for staged readings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and it is slated to open in the Bay Area at The SF Playhouse on March 20, 2012.

Of the three plays (which all take place in the fictional town of Shirley, VT) Body Awareness is the most accessible, actively entertaining, and straight-forward play from Baker. There is less exertion on the part of the spectator to comprehend any meaning between the lines. The play is also very funny, even as Baker avoids the self-aware, uber-clever, Oscar Wilde-esque wit that is so prevalent in her playwriting peer group (Baker is 30 years-old). The satisfying humor is drawn from the humanity of the characters and their circumstances; the naturalistic dialogue sounds like something people say on the spot, not some sparkling Coward-esque repartee that it would take days to come up with. Without any degree of condemnation towards Baker, this is theatrical situation-comedy at its best. Her true-to-life dialogue is as exciting as the earlier works of Kenneth Lonergan, such as Lobby Hero (2001).

It’s Body Awareness Week at Shirley State College. Feminist psychology professor and organizer of the event Phyllis (Amy Resnick) lives with her lover Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen), a divorced high-school teacher, and Joyce’s son Jared (Patrick Russell), a 21 year-old lexicographer wannabe who is obsessed with both the Oxford English Dictionary and an electric toothbrush that he shoves in his mouth whenever he’s feeling antagonistic. Joyce is having difficulty convincing Jared that his eccentric behavior, rituals, and social skills are signs of Asperger’s syndrome.

From the start, Baker manages to bring 21st century social issues to the fore (lesbian relationships, mental disorder) without shoving them down our throat. In fact, they all seem matter-of-course distresses for a modern family.

But an awkward youth and his two moms are minor conflicts compared to the outside force that threatens to pull this family apart. One of the guest artists at the seminar is Frank (Howard Swain), who is lodging with the two moms for the week. His pictures of naked women are displayed at the college, and Joyce is intrigued by the aging, verbose hippie and his assertion that women actually gain insight about their bodies when they pose for him. Phyllis, however, is more than disturbed by the photos: how does that sick-o explain the nude photographs of children? Interestingly enough, Phyllis has organized an event to teach people not to be self-conscious, but she is riled by the photo exhibit (which includes one woman who posed after a mastectomy).

We never really do discover Frank’s intentions in taking the photos, but Mr. Swain gives the character an unctuous sensitivity that keeps him constantly fascinating and creepy at the same time. When Frank decides to instruct Jared on the importance of cunnilingus before intercourse (the photographer no doubt seeing his tutorial as an act of generosity), the keen facial expressions of Mr. Russell’s Jared let us know that the young man finds this all deliciously disturbing. Mr. Russell also embodies the elements of Asperger’s quite well (if not somewhat practiced).

Ms. Cohen is delightful in her child-like excitement when Joyce considers modeling for the rapscallion lens man Frank. She has the veneer of an everyday dowdy housewife, one who could easily be a spokesperson for a good cup of coffee, but with a deep sense of pathos underneath. It’s a perfect portrayal because Joyce, who longs for self-expression and self-esteem, is trapped between the inexhaustible strain from an anxious son and the suffragette dogma of her mate.

All of the actors are perfectly cast, but Ms. Resnick is the one who is unparalleled as a master thespian. Whether she is crumbling at the podium during her introduction of guests, grandstanding with distrust at the “Male Gaze,” or being stridently didactic in her relationship, Ms. Resnick always allows us to sense an extraordinary compassion in Phyllis. The actress is flawlessly free of any indicating whatsoever, and her reactions to her cast mates are the funniest of the night because she actively listens and responds organically. When she claps her hands rhythmically to accentuate a point during an argument, it is uproarious.

Director Joy Carlin keeps the sparks flying, but something fascinating happened during the scene changes: instead of a blackout, the lights were kept low as actors rushed to change costumes and set up the next scene. That frantic urgency jarringly took me out of the play. It may sound like a little thing, but those moments had me yearning for the long silences that I never fully appreciated when first I saw the work of Annie Baker.

Photos by David Allen

Body Awareness
Aurora Theatre in Berkeley
scheduled to end on March 11
for tickets, visit http://www.auroratheatre.org

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