Annie Baker won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in drama for THE FLICK, a thoughtful drama concerning three employees of an art-house movie theatre.
Her first play, BODY AWARENESS, which is now being staged at Beck Center, was the initial writing in her “Vermont plays,” a series which take place in the fictional town of Shirley, VT. The other parts of the series were CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION and THE ALIENS.
BODY AWARENESS centers on Phyllis a psychology professor and her lesbian partner, Joyce, a high school social studies teacher. Phyllis has organized a campus Body Awareness Week at her college. Though programs include an eating disorder seminar, there are also such activities as a dance troupe of refugee Palestinian children and a puppet show, which are not normally part of such a seminar.
Phylis and Joyce live with Jared, Joyce’s 21-year-old son from a previous marriage. The boy considers himself autodidact (self-educated). Jared displays some symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism. He has obsessive compulsive disorder habits, poor social skills, is verbally explosive, and is physically awkward.
Frank, a photographer of nude women, is one of the conference speakers and is a guest in Phyllis and Joyce’s home.
Conflict, which is present in the home, is increased as Phylis, is inexplicably offended by Frank’s nude female photos. Tension increases when Joyce agrees to pose for the photographer and Jared asks the man how to attract women, resulting in the boy acting out inappropriately.
When a playwright writes a play they usually have a purpose in mind. They wish to entertain through humor, explain a point of view, tell a history lesson, or maybe highlight a concept. They have an intent and purpose. A common theatre axiom of the need to have a purpose for a play is that “the author should have a voice.”
In explaining BODY AWARENESS Baker said, "My goal for the play is to not judge anyone, to get at that point where everyone is equally right and equally wrong, so the humor comes from that... I wanted to write a play about issues that wasn’t an 'issue play.’”
To Baker’s credit, she does get the viewer to think about the awareness of the bodies and souls around them. She does present flawed people, fighting for connection.
Unfortunately for the viewer, though Baker’s play has some interesting moments, it is the very matter of not writing an “issue play” that seems to get in the way. It is difficult to ascertain specifically what Baker’s voice is, what she is trying to accomplish.
The other aspect of the Beck staging that confounds is that in previous productions BODY AWARNESS has been commented upon as being “hilarious,” and “funny, skewering everything from pretensions to blunt sex talk.” Unfortunately, on opening night, there were very few laughs and though some of the lines could have been perceived as skewering, the way they were presented usually didn’t bring about the desired effect.
Since the play has been presented in other venues with reviewer comments on success, a question must be raised as to the director David Vegh’s approach to achieving the needed humor and skewering.
Anne McEvoy gives a nicely texture performance as Joyce, the frustrated mother and parent, caught between her need to nurture the exasperating Jared and have a positive connection with the dominating, if inconsistent, Phyllis.
Richie Gagen, as Jared, has mastered many of the traditionally evident signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. His awkwardness, obsessive repetition of continually straightening his hair, and bursting out emotionally with no provocation, all help in creating a real sufferer of the illness.
Julia Kolibab is inconsistent as Phyllis. Whether it is the way the role is written or the director or her interpretation of the part, she often comes across on a surface level.
Rick Montgomery Jr. is an acceptable Frank. Unfortunately, the actor has a tendency to swallow the endings of lines, so the intent of his speeches are sometimes lost.
Aaron Benson has the unenviable task of having to design a three-area set in a very confined place. He does a very creditable job. He is assisted by Marcus Dana’s lighting design.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ninety-minute intermissionless BODY AWARENESS has some high points, but doesn’t showcase the requisite humor built into the script. Though not a great play, it appears that author Annie Baker learned from writing this, her initial script, and has gone on to expand her voice as evidenced by her receipt of a Pulitzer Prize for a later work.
BODY AWARENESS is scheduled to run through November 6, 2016 in the Studio Theater at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org