Such questions! So bossy, so holier-than-thou. And so irrelevant to anyone with either a thimbleful of self-respect or the good fortune to be in the audience at Atlantic Stage 2 for Annie Baker’s hilarious new play Body Awareness. This cunning routing of the culture of perfection doesn’t care who you are, or what you think of yourself or anyone. All it asks is that you check your preconceptions at the door, along with any beliefs that deep down we’re all the same.
That we’re not is the central issue of the play and of Karen Kohlhaas’s precisely pitched production: What matters is what’s beneath the skin, the truth we keep hidden from the world behind a decorative façade - if you can get to that, everything else will fall into place. Baker makes this daunting task look so effortless, and sound so simple and real, that you shouldn’t be at all surprised if you spring from your seat after 95 breezy minutes and are rarin’ to go at it.
Baker has chosen as her backdrop for all these life lessons Shirley State College in Shirley, Vermont. The liberal (in every way) arts college is kicking off its “Body Awareness Week” with high style and in high dudgeon: “We live in a very harsh culture,” announces the event’s organizer Phyllis (Mary McCann) on Monday morning, “a culture that encourages a real obsession with appearance, and, um, healing from this culture, healing ourselves, can only really take place once we’re able to step back and examine the culture itself from a critical viewpoint.”
Such goals are more easily spouted than achieved for Phyllis, who needs (along with those she lives with) different kinds of healing. Phyllis lives with Joyce (JoBeth Williams), a high-school “cultural studies” teacher, and Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared (Jonathan Clem), who works at McDonald’s and whom the women believe is an undiagnosed Asperger case. Jared insists he’s fine, all while reading the Oxford English Dictionary for hours each day, soothing mental anguish by holding an electric toothbrush against his gums, and making constant death threats to Joyce and Phyllis.
Even so, their relative well-adjustedness vanishes in the light of a new arrival: Frank Bonitatibus (Peter Friedman), a Body Awareness Week exhibitor nationally renowned for his photos of naked women (and, well, girls) that help them “reclaim their own body image.” Joyce is intrigued by his philosophies. Phyllis is outraged and disgusted by his tactics. Jared is just thrilled to have a male role model who can explain to him the vagaries of dating and sex, subjects Joyce and Phyllis describe only in clichés.
As Frank’s presence stretches them all farther apart, Baker and Kohlhaas never lose their cool or their perspective, and always keep the focus squarely on the ever-shifting nature of identity. This manifests itself in ways absurd (Frank testing Joyce’s lapsed Jewishness with a Shabbos prayer on a Tuesday night) and poignant (Jared’s gradual realization that he might not be as flawless as he insists), but is invariably far funnier and less preachy than most treatments of these typically serious topics.
The play and production work so well because you believe, as you must, that everyone onstage is regularly thwarted in attempts to attain his or her ideal self. Each character is striving for normalcy but is unable to define it, and thus can’t bring it about; Baker misses no avenue in exploring how this can impact happiness, leaving Kohlhaas and the scrupulously chosen performers ample opportunities to state, restate, and understate the problems created by not believing fully in yourself.
McCann gives Phyllis an approachable stridency that justifies every mood swing, every disappointment, and every expression of love as well-meaning, unquenchable hope. Joyce radiates insecurity, but Williams gives her a determination toward normalcy that leaves her as emotionally unfettered as any mother or sister who knows she has nothing to hide from her own family. Friedman and Clem establish an uproarious contrast between Frank and Jared: Clem avoids conventional stereotypes as the young man who can’t control his inherent insensitivity, while Friedman milks Frank’s own self-imposed, question-mark callousness for all it’s worth.
Who, Baker demands of us, is truly defective? She suggests an answer in the play’s final seconds, but it’s far from a definitive one. After all, judging others and their motives is always easier than judging oneself, but the latter matters far more than the former. What matters most, though, is that the questions be asked. Body Awareness Week at Shirley College was created as a “catalyst” for that kind of discussion; Body Awareness embraces that as well, but is also a catalyst for comedy of the most cutting and significant kind.