Sometime between freshman orientation and final exams comes the awkward annual ritual of "Body Awareness" week. Annie Baker's smart and touching new play takes place on a small Vermont campus where students are invited to "check in" with their attitudes about gender, bodies and identity.
"Body Awareness," a pithy 90-minute dramedy, spins around the shortcomings of political correctness, the limits of the family bond and the wild card of sexuality. Obie winner Baker ("Circle Mirror Transformation," "The Aliens") is an emerging playwright with a gently witty voice. She doesn't overstate her style or her themes, and that's what gives "Body" its allure.
Astutely directed by Joy Carlin, this engaging regional premiere runs through March 4 at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company.
If the playwright has not yet learned how to make her ideas as raw and real as her people, she shows great promise capturing psychology through quirks of speech. Her knack for language, in all its slipperiness, grounds the laughs here in a kind of wistful feedback loop. The more these characters chatter, the less they are able to hear.
Certainly the comedy comes straight from the heart. Baker is the child of academics, and she drew on a childhood stewed in the crunchy-granola vibe of the New England college environment. So when she mocks the idiosyncrasies of ivory tower identity politics, she hits the bull's-eye.
When staunchly feminist professor Phyllis (Amy Resnick) and her partner Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) invite a visiting artist named Frank (Howard Swain) to stay with them, they have no idea that he specializes in female nudes. The female body is his canvas, his obsession, and he's not afraid to admit that his work puts a bit of swagger in his step.
Joyce finds herself drawn to his photographs. Stuck in a house where everyone takes from her and no one gives back, she has begun to feel invisible. She responds to the fact that Frank shoots all manifestations of the female form, young and old, fat and thin.
But to Phyllis, taking naked pictures of little girls is just this side of pornography. She sees Frank's career as an ugly offshoot of a zeitgeist that demeans women even when it claims to celebrate them.
Phyllis is all too aware that her concerns are rather out of touch with the culture at large. The objectification of women and the tyranny of the male gaze are not popular talking points in a society better versed in Snooki than Simone de Beauvoir. That subtext tinges the laughs with wistfulness as Phyllis comes unglued.
As it happens, Baker saddles the play with a lot of time at the podium as Phyllis lectures, which is unfortunate, but the always ingenious Resnick turns these interludes into gripping arias of fear and need. As the week progresses and Joyce and the houseguest begin to click, Phyllis devolves into a mass of rants and facial twitches.
While we never quite know what holds Phyllis and Joyce together or whether Frank is an artist or a sleazeball, Baker packs the play with intuitive leaps about the way a household works.
The most insightful commentary pertains to Joyce's son, Jared (Patrick Russell). He appears to suffer from Asperger's syndrome, which undermines his ability to feel empathy for others, even his mommies. Never without his toothbrush and his dictionary, he's an odd bird stuck in a dead-end job at McDonald's while braying about his erudition ("I'm an autodidact!").
"Maybe you have Asperger's," he accuses his mother. "Because you're kind of an idiot. You've never read 'Crime and Punishment.' You're 55, and you've never read 'Crime and Punishment.' "
The 21-year-old only feels comfortable reading the dictionary and/or watching porn. When he tries to reach out to people, he misfires. Big time. This is Jared trying to have empathy: "It must be hard to not be that pretty anymore. To get old."
Russell conveys Jared's frustration with a world where no one seems to think like him. He veers between sad little boy and seething volcano without descending into caricature.
Certainly Baker has an ear for the strained communication between people who ought to love each other but can't seem to connect. And Carlin has assembled a cast of Bay Area vets who imbue the play's battle of ideas with a sense of intimacy.
Swain and Cohen spark wonderfully as they dance around the subject of sex, Russell evokes the pain of being trapped in an unconventional brain, and the entire ensemble gives "Body Awareness" some real heft.
By Annie Baker
Through: March 4
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $30-$55, 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org