|A Jock Sturges photo of his muse, "Misty Dawn," whom he has been photographing in the nude since she was 3.|
That's the implied thesis of Annie Baker's Body Awareness, now at SpeakEasy Stage as part of a three-part Baker festival running through November. (I gazed into another side of this theatrical triptych, Circle Mirror Transformation, here, and will see the final panel, The Aliens, later this week.) Though close enough in style to form a family, these theatrical triplets aren't quite identical; if one watched them in the sequence of their composition (that is, Body, then Circle, then Aliens), my guess is one would perceive Baker becoming more and more self-conscious almost scene by scene.
For she is a dramatist all but obsessed, like many millennials, with not being overly "dramatic." Indeed, in the notes to Body Awareness, the playwright expresses pain over even being heard: "Speaking is a kind of misery," Baker (probably) whispers to her interviewer. "We're all kind of quietly suffering . . . trying and failing to communicate to other people what we want and what we believe." She goes further about her own methods of revision: "If I can hear [myself] writing, like if there is thinly-disguised exposition or a nudge to the audience or some kind of obvious point made, I go back and change it."
I was surprised, then, to discover that Body Awareness is full of rather obvious points. Indeed, despite Baker's mania to never seem "stagy," I often perceived melodramatic mechanics operating beneath the surface of her script; people enter in tears, or break down while on stage, etc. But then Body is the first of Baker's so-called "Vermont Plays" (because they're all set in a fictitious "Shirley, VT"); the playwright was, indeed, far more carefully guarded in Circle Mirror, and I understand that The Aliens all but disappears down a rabbit hole of pauses and silence. (Which may be why I've heard most folks prefer the structure, and relative accessibility, of Body.)
What struck me most about the play's staginess, however, is that it derives from a highly developed schema - unlike in Circle Mirror, Baker wants to quietly posit an argument here, and even a political metaphor, with the crunchy downside of political correctness in her sights. Her two heroines, Joyce and Phyllis, are a thoughtful lesbian couple, dealing with a problematic son, Jared (from Joyce's earlier marriage), who clearly has Asperger Syndrome, but just as clearly can't admit that. Absorbed in the Oxford English Dictionary, unable to sustain empathy even for those he loves - yet all the while sucking on an electric toothbrush like some kind of techno-teat - Jared can't even hold down a job at McDonald's, yet bristles with violence whenever he senses anybody might think he's "a retard." At 21, he's also quite hot to lose his virginity, a state his helicopter moms are humiliatingly aware of ("We're glad you're masturbating!" they assure him. "Just please don't run up the phone bill!") Meanwhile, at "Shirley State," where she teaches, Phyllis has organized "Body Awareness Week," a sit-in designed to heal the psychological wounds inflicted by "the white male gaze," etc.
At any rate, once Phyllis gets a load of Frank, the sparks begin to fly - perhaps partly because Joyce (who after all was once into men) finds him kind of attractive. A showdown between rival forms of empowerment is soon in the offing, with Joyce edging toward stripping for Frank (who's giving Jared a little sex advice on the side) while Phyllis (short for "Philistine," perhaps?) slowly devolves into Andrea Dworkin as she issues intolerant ultimatums about sex, life, and art.
|Richard Snee prepares to gaze at Paula Plum in Body Awareness.|
And how much more interesting Body Awareness would be as drama if Frank were a bit sketchier, a bit more of a pervy threat. Or if Phyllis were able to simply score some points against him; but oh no, Frank's got a laid-back live-and-let-live answer to everything - so why can't Phyl just chill? Even though sexual attraction kind of lacks empathy, when you think about it. I mean isn't horniness like a mode of autism, too?
Of course limning these contradictions - or exploring why half of millennial girls seem to be starving themselves, while the other half are confidently showing their boobs on the Internet - would require Annie Baker to actually raise her voice, to stage a debate, to boldly declare that yes, she's really writing a play. But she's never going to do that. So we only get one brief feint, in a truncated conversation between Phyllis and Joyce, at the political issues her script raises.
But at least we also get, in Paul Daigneault's well-crafted and heartfelt production, a good deal of very good acting; the emotional issues at stake get a persuasive airing, even if the intellectual ones don't. Center stage is the reliable Paula Plum, as the instinctive, wounded Joyce, giving another delicately shaded performance that I'm sure will put her on a lot of people's short lists for yet another acting award. And she's ably aided and abetted by Richard Snee - her husband in "real life" - as that smooth-talking Frank; together, they effortlessly conjure an intimacy that many actors could easily overplay. Both regularly have their scenes stolen, however, by newcomer Gregory Pember, who makes poor, pained Jared into a quivering bundle of tics of such verisimilitude that they're genuinely pathetic and threatening by turns. Only the talented Adrianne Krstansky falls a few steps behind, as the unlikable Phyllis - but then she's hamstrung by the part. And Baker throws her so many curveballs in the final scene - in which Phyllis suddenly seems to repudiate everything she has stood for so far - that it's a wonder poor Krstansky isn't suffering from emotional whiplash by now.
Thus once again, I found myself at a Boston production of a new play that seemed slightly superior to the work itself (even Cristina Todesco's beautiful set - which recalls a kind of natural-wood cave, or maybe cage - seemed better than the script deserved). This is beginning to feel like a trend. Indeed, could the most ironic thing about this ironic millennial playwright's festival prove to be that the high quality of its acting outshines the quality of her writing? OMG!