It would be difficult to think of a less enticing title for a play than “Body Awareness,” the slight but thrilling one-act by Annie Baker now running in a Jewish Repertory Theatre production in Getzville.
The synopsis doesn’t help much, either:
“It’s ‘Body Awareness’ week on a Vermont college campus and Phyllis, the organizer, and her partner, Joyce, are hosting one of the guest artists in their home.” I’ll spare you the remaining sentences, lest their sedative effect dissuade you from seeing JRT’s smart and simmering production of the piece, which opened a week ago and features the most magnetic ensemble cast I’ve seen so far this season.
Far from being a feminist disquisition on the complicated way we view our bodies – though in some sly ways, it is just that – Baker’s 2008 play is a lucid and electric family portrait divvied up into five tidy chapters. With stunning efficiency, each of those chapters peels back another layer of intrigue and agitates the already raw nerves of the nontraditional family unit at the play’s core.
The effect of watching “Body Awareness,” directed with consummate pacing by Saul Elkin on a comfy-cozy set by Joel Resnikoff, is the same as reading a crystalline short story by George Saunders or Alice Munro. You get the sense that it was whittled down, with meticulous attention to detail and a strenuous insistence on maintaining naturalistic dialogue, from an enormous amount of source material. It is a play with zero percent body fat, in which every last syllable counts for something and every pause is pregnant with meaning.
Baker’s subjects are a psychology professor named Phyllis (Eileen Dugan, excellent in this role), her partner Joyce (Kristen Tripp Kelley), Joyce’s peculiar son Jared (Adam Yellen) and Frank (Tim Newell), a visiting photographer.
The play opens with Phyllis giving a confident opening address during the college’s “Body Awareness” week in a tone and style that will sound familiar to anyone who attended a liberal arts school. We soon jump to the couple’s household, where Joyce scolds her 21-year-old son about his addiction to expensive pay-per-view pornography.
“It would be extremely hard to find a real woman who looks like that,” Kelley says, her voice drenched in both apprehension and deep love for her son, who, like the audience, finds the exchange extremely uncomfortable. This is a role made for Kelley, who has a magnificent ability to emote through the outward poise and restraint that many of her characters exhibit.
Jared, in glasses and a red McDonald’s T-shirt, is in deep denial about a fact that seems clear to nearly everyone else he comes into contact with: He has Asperger syndrome, which makes it difficult for him to empathize or conduct anything resembling a normal interaction with another person.
He says offensive things that he doesn’t realize are offensive in a matter-of-fact tone, such as: “This soup is not as gross as I thought it would be.” Yellen’s performance as Jared is spellbinding and multifaceted. He not only gives a compelling interpretation of many off-putting traits common to those afflicted by Asperger’s, but reveals in small flickers the emotional turmoil and need for affection that underlie it.
The already delicate balance of the relationships between Joyce, Phyllis and Jared is threatened with the arrival of a brash photographer, Baker’s weakest character who is helped by Newell’s characteristically strong performance. Frank’s work, nude portraits of girls and women of all ages, draws Joyce’s admiration, Phyllis’ feminist ire and Jared’s prurient curiosity. There are plenty of fireworks, and in the end, each character’s world-view has unraveled just a bit.
Watching this cast work together is an uncomplicated joy, deepened by Barker’s immensely satisfying dialogue. Here’s one characteristically smart line, dropped by Joyce after Phyllis asks whether she’s attracted to their temporary house guest: “You’re allowed to ask, but then you have to believe me when I say no.”
The only flaw is that the three female family members are so realistically drawn that they render Frank’s character – who might seem three-dimensional in any other production – comparatively flat and a bit too much the villain. But that’s a minor issue in a play that is extraordinary for its economy, its humor and its deep humanity.
What: “Body Awareness”
When: Through June 1
Where: Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville
Tickets: $10 to $38
Info: 688-4033, Ext. 391 or www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com