Howard Swain (left), Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick, and Patrick Russell in "Body Awareness"
As befits the first play by a young, promising playwright, Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, performing at the Aurora Theatre, is ambitious, spry, inquisitive, and restless. Before launching Baker’s award-studded career, Body Awareness appeared in the 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, which showcased two playwrights who would go on to win Obies: Baker and Samuel D. Hunter. Five years later, the play returns under the direction of Joy Carlin, who balances the script’s constant intellectual and physical dynamism by keeping it zipping about, like a juggler circling on a unicycle.
The play, set on the campus of a Vermont small college, has two plots. The first deals with a lesbian couple—Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a feminist professor, and her partner, Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen)—struggling with their marriage and Jared (Patrick Russell), Joyce’s adult son who has Asperger’s Syndrome. And the second stems from the couple’s hosting a male photographer (Howard Swain) who specializes in nude photos of women. Out of this situation, great philosophical questions clash: feminism versus patriarchal ownership, rationalism versus semi-mystic spiritualist hedonism, and the body versus the mind.
Baker’s characters tend to fall neatly along a spectrum, spending most scenes conscripting grand ideas into their personal quarrels. They all seem obsessed with who is “right” or what is “the right thing to do.” But the play’s purpose seems to be in humorously displaying the curious juxtapositions of contemporary life, and not trying to fix them. At one point, a character exclaims in disbelief, “A goy teaching a Jew how to Shabbas. On a Tuesday.” The audience laughs.
The performance and design of the play is solid. Cohen, Resnick, Russell, and Swain deserve praise for eschewing caricature while flirting with strong and comic physical characterizations. Kent Dorsey’s set successfully distinguishes, within a small stage and without moving much furniture, the plays’ five different settings. (But why does the bedroom have no pillows?)
Carlin puts the play’s script at the fore. She keeps the tempo high, conscripting all other production elements to maintaining a clip. The play’s classical wordiness (major actions are described, occurring offstage; characters frequently explain ambiguous stage activities instead of letting them stand for themselves) encourages this directorial choice, but that doesn’t ameliorate the chaos and the restlessness sparked by the script’s numerous philosophical contests. Carlin makes no choice to highlight one thought or through-line over another, leaving them all to compete with each other, creating an aura of both breathlessness and immobility, and deflating the ultimate resolution.
Despite this, the play is clever, nuanced, and intriguing. Body Awareness swims along, bringing plenty of comedy (and entertainment) to each scene. Though Baker excels at constructing humorous pairings of people and philosophy, her point isn’t the comedy of those arrangements. Instead, she is about the unity of opposites, the OK-ness in their existing together. Baker, in her typically neat way, sums up these thoughts in the play’s final scene, when one character reads from a book about how the body and mind are one, how we must expand our sense of the mind to include the body. Baker’s graceful implication is that such awareness creates true unity.
Body Awareness runs through March 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.