Body Awareness

WORD IMPERFECT Clem, right, buries himself in the dictionary.

WORD IMPERFECT Clem, right, buries himself in the dictionary. Photograph: Doug Hamilton

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

New England’s stern Puritans have long since turned to dust in their lonely graves, but their spiritual descendants are very much alive, thanks to Annie Baker. The young playwright’s marvelously deft and humane comedy, Body Awareness, is set at the fictional campus of Shirley State College in rural Vermont; and even though two main characters are leftist lesbians, their discomfort with sex and quickness to judge are straight out of Cotton Mather. Sexuality’s endless capacity to make us miserable is the keynote of Baker’s gentle satire, which takes just four actors and 90 minutes to spin an astonishingly complex web of emotions and ideas. The title comes from a “Body Awareness Week” organized at Shirley State by feminist psychology professor Phyllis (Mary McCann). Phyllis’s partner, Joyce (a touchingly vulnerable JoBeth Williams), is a local high-school teacher whose son, Jared (Jonathan Clem), may have Asperger’s syndrome. (He’s obsessed with the Oxford English Dictionary and deadpans outrageous insults.) Into this awkward, crunchy-granola clan ventures guest artist Frank (Peter Friedman), a coolly assured photographer who takes nude shots of women across the country. Phyllis thinks Frank is a manipulative pervert, Joyce welcomes his manly attention and lonely Jared looks to him for advice about girls. Body Awareness is a smart, modest work about ordinary, flawed people grasping for connection, but none of it feels small, thanks to Baker’s sharp ear for the deeply painful—and funny—longings squirming under her characters’ dialogue. What a beautiful start to her theatrical body of work.

Atlantic Stage 2 . By Annie Baker. Dir. Karen Koolhaas. With ensemble cast. 1hr 35mins. No intermission.