Let's get physical
Annie Baker makes a quirk-free Off-Broadway bow with Body Awareness.
Thu May 29 2008
Photograph: Molly Lindsay
From Juno and Pushing Daisies to the Decemberists, quirky seems to rule the cultural moment, and that includes young playwrights. Topping the list of weird but endearing dramatists are Adam Bock, Kyle Jarrow and princess of oddball Sarah Ruhl. The cutely flawed, whip-smart characters in plays such as The Drunken City and Dead Man's Cell Phone brave the strangest predicaments in stylized language, proving their authors' trendy cleverness.
From Juno and Pushing Daisies to the Decemberists, quirky seems to rule the cultural moment, and that includes young playwrights. Topping the list of weird but endearing dramatists are Adam Bock, Kyle Jarrow and princess of oddball Sarah Ruhl. The cutely flawed, whip-smart characters in plays such as The Drunken City and Dead Man's Cell Phone brave the strangest predicaments in stylized language, proving their authors' trendy cleverness. And then you have Annie Baker, who creates normal individuals coping with everyday issues in their small-town lives. Baker is getting her first full production with Body Awareness at Atlantic Stage 2, and it marks the arrival of a new playwright who would seem to fit the quirky bill, but aims for sincerity instead.
Even though there's goofiness aplenty in her work, Baker, 27, sticks to straightforward narrative and simple dialogue. The writing isn't superficially clever, it's smart. "Most naturalistic plays I see are a bunch of middle- or upper-middle-class people being witty," Baker notes. "I don't actually find wittiness that funny.... The tragedy of bourgeois society is that we're never that funny. People write these plays where everybody onstage is saying what we all would say—days later, when we think up what would have been the funny thing to say. But I think we are actually incredibly earnest and serious and kind of pathetic. That's funnier to me."
The result of this perspective has been a series of works based in a fictional Vermont town, of which Body Awareness is the first. "I have four plays set there," Baker says. "I would start writing one and be like, 'This is not going to take place in Shirley.' And then it would." The plays don't have reoccurring characters, although in Baker's mind they all know each other, so names casually pop up in plays where the person does not.
Body Awareness focuses on a nonnuclear family over the course of a week. There's Joyce, a middle-aged mother and junior-high schoolteacher, and her girlfriend, Phyllis, a psychology professor at a small liberal-arts college that's celebrating Body Awareness Week. A guest artist for the festivities is Frank, a photographer specializing in controversial nudes, who stays with the women. Rounding out the cast is Joyce's son, a 21-year-old social outcast named Jared who obsesses over the Oxford English Dictionary, works at McDonald's and has no friends. Jared's funny-sad state of arrested development becomes the focus of the story, as his own "body awareness" reaches a boiling-over point. Baker endowed Jared with her own OED obsession; she was even flown out to London for a job interview there once.
She didn't get the position, and her first few years out of college were tough. After getting her degree in playwriting from NYU, Baker spent years in a series of unhappy day jobs. "I had given up on anyone reading my stuff," she recalls. "When I didn't know a single person in the theater world, I was like, 'How do you get in? This is impossible!'" Then she dropped off an application for Ensemble Studio Theater's Youngblood, an emerging-playwright group. Body Awareness was the first play she wrote there. Baker met director Alex Timbers, who recommended her current agent, and actor Catherine Curtin, who got the script to the Atlantic Theater Company's artistic staff. Atlantic head Neil Pepe was sold. "Her work has all this humanity and honesty, a real down-to-earth voice compared to others," he says.
Baker thinks her plays aren't much to read; she uses GarageBand recording software while writing, reciting her words in different voices and then playing them back to get a sense of the dialogue. And she is still surprised when people get hooked on them. Philip Himberg of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program loved Body Awareness when Baker applied to last year's Sundance Lab, where she was one of 20 finalists from 700 submissions. Baker's next Vermont-based play, Circle Mirror Transformation, did win a workshop slot at this summer's Lab. Himberg calls her voice "cinematic in a sense, though deeply theatrical," and different from other young playwrights in that there are no gimmicks, weird plots or meta-anything. "I don't know how, but Annie gets inside these heads of her characters....she has a beautiful, subtle understanding of human psychology." If you can achieve that level of empathy and feeling, who needs whimsy?
Body Awareness is at Atlantic Stage 2.