September 20, 2012 at 10:13 am EST | by Brian T. Carney
‘Body’ of evidence

‘Body Awareness’
Theater J
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
Through Sept. 23
Tickets: $25

Body Awareness, theater, Marybeth Wise, Susan Lynskey, Adi Stein

MaryBeth Wise, Susan Lynskey and Adi Stein in ‘Body Awareness’ by Annie Baker at Theater J through Sunday. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

It’s wonderful when you leave a play wanting more — more of the interesting multi-faceted characters, more of the thought-provoking themes, more of the crackling dialogue and more of the nuanced acting, striking design and confident direction. And luckily for Washington’s LGBT theater audiences, that is definitely the case with Theater J’s excellent production of Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness.” But act fast — this is the last weekend to catch it as it closes Sunday.

As the play opens, it’s Body Awareness week at Shirley State College in Vermont. Psychology professor Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) predicts all too accurately that, “we have five eventful days ahead of us.” Like Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” “Body Awareness” is structured around a series of addresses by a feminist academic, but Baker’s writing is less self-conscious and more self-assured and her character’s use of humor is more organic and less self-defensive.

One of the guest artists for the politically correct-yet-intellectually-and-artistically-scattershot week is Frank Bonitatibus who takes nude photographs of women of all ages. Frank is staying with Phyllis and her partner Joyce, and that’s when the drama starts.

Phyllis categorically rejects Frank’s photos as manipulative and exploitative. Joyce quickly sees Frank as a kindred spirit with a common interest in Judaism and a mutual yearning for self-expression. Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared, who still lives with Joyce and Phyllis, sees Frank as a potential role model who might be able to teach him how to get a girlfriend.

Baker skillfully draws out the shifting alliance and antagonisms between the characters: the feminist psychologist verses the visionary artist; the arrogant college professor and the caring high school teacher (“your mother’s job does not count as academic”); the politically correct lesbian versus the warm fuzzy lesbian hippy; the well-meaning mothers and the quirky son who insists he does not have Asperger’s Syndrome, despite his lack of social skills, his obsessive interest in etymologies and his bursts of violent language.

Under the smooth direction of Eleanor Holdridge, the cast brings these rich characters to energetic theatrical life, Lynskey is strong as a rather rigid ideologue whose more tender feelings are betrayed by a suspected facial tic and a meltdown during her Friday lecture. MaryBeth Wise is superb as Joyce, the woman who plays peacekeeper to the warring factions and still tries to address her own needs. Michael Kramer is fascinating as Frank, striking a fine balance between a sensitive empowering artist and a somewhat creepy voyeur who has his own issues relating to women.

Adi Stein is somewhat less successful as Jared, who may, or may not, have Asperger’s Syndrome. He captures the character’s mood swings and idiosyncrasies with admirable precision, but his lively performance leaves the young man’s diagnosis in little doubt. A flatter aspect might have preserved more of the character’s mystery.

The play is also well served by the subtle work of the design team (Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger, Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler, Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt and Sound Designer Chas Marsh). The set design is fluid and effective and the lighting evocatively captures the shifting moods of the different scenes. Director Holdridge brings all this together with a casual effortlessness that works well with the tricky verbal and emotional rhythms of Baker’s dialogue. The scene transitions are especially effective, creating lovely stage pictures with lively underscoring while giving the actors and audience a chance to regroup and rethink.

There are a few bugs in the writing. Phyllis’s instant antagonism to Frank and his art, and her lack of awareness about the content of his exhibition, don’t make a lot of sense and a final twist involving Jared and one of his mother’s students comes out of nowhere. Despite these relatively minor flaws, “Body Awareness” is an exciting early work by an important new female playwright.

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