'Body Awareness' Stirs Up Awareness Of One's Body

"Body Awareness," a new comedy by Annie Baker presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, has a slightly familiar look and feel to it: Two middle-aged female academics, live-in partners for the past three years, share their home in rural Shirley, Vermont, with the slightly dysfunctional young adult son of one of the women.

But this seemingly settled household is full of surprises. A male photographer, Frank Bonitatibus, genially played by Peter Friedman, arrives for a brief stay in the home as a guest artist for Shirley State College's Body Awareness Week. The provocative nature of his nude photos of women and girls soon stirs up a hurricane of varying emotions in all three of the Vermonters.

Psychology professor Phyllis (Mary McCann) is a lifelong lesbian who spouts wrathful, sometimes cliched denunciations of men. "Phyllis knew she was gay when she was in kindergarten," explains her less-judgmental partner, Joyce, a high-school "cultural studies" teacher played by JoBeth Williams.

Joyce is the sensitive, overprotective mother of Jared, the product of her marriage "years ago. To a man," she explains succinctly to Frank.

Superbly portrayed by newcomer Jonathan Clem, Jared is a socially awkward, 21-year-old aspiring lexicographer who works at McDonald's. Phyllis and Joyce believe he has Asperger's syndrome, but Jared rejects this possibility, angrily claiming he is "not retarded."

Jared is working on being ironic and on trying to get a girlfriend, while proving to Phyllis and Joyce that he doesn't have Asperger's, a mild form of autism. He makes some hilarious attempts to show Phyllis and Joyce that he has "empathy," at one point earnestly telling Phyllis, "It must be hard to be not that pretty any more. To get old."

Body Awareness Week is meant to be about "checking in with" and then "reclaiming" one's own body, according to Phyllis, the organizer of the five-day event. Phyllis also acts as the enthusiastic mistress of ceremonies for the various entertainments she has brought to town, revealing more vulnerability to the audience through her speeches as the week progresses.

Williams' Joyce wears a tense smile that subtly alters as she navigates the increasingly emotionally charged interactions among herself, Phyllis, Jared and Frank. McCann gives a poignant performance as a self-assured academic who finds that she must check in with and then re-examine many of her preconceived ideas.

Except for an annoying radio talk-show voiceover blasting before the play begins, the production, smoothly directed by Karen Kohlhaas, works to make the audience care about the universal problems and issues presented by the gently eccentric residents of small-town Shirley.

Baker is making her off-Broadway debut with this play, running through June 22 at Atlantic Stage 2.