Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Body language

A Jock Sturges photo of his muse, "Misty Dawn," whom he has been photographing in the nude since she was 3.
Is being politically correct kind of like being autistic?

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.

And who should step into this simmering situation but a white male who, yes, gazes.  Photographer "Frank Bonitatibus" (we won't speculate about that moniker, but see what I mean about Baker being stagy?) has made his reputation photographing females - even under-age females - in the nude; he's obviously modeled on photographer Jock Sturges (typical images, at top and left) the sketchy lensman who got his start doing pictures of girls in nudist colonies, but eventually graduated from softcore to the "art-lite" demi-monde. Sturges' oeuvre may be uninteresting intellectually, but its sexual pictorialism is lovely because the women are, and a consensus has developed around him that nobody has really been hurt by what he does (although frankly, some of the girls in his photos look none too happy, and of course there are claims of a statistical link between naturism and pedophilia). At the same time, as the notion that nudity can be "empowering" (via burlesque, etc.) has gained ground among young women, Sturges' work has become inevitably embroiled in the spray of the various waves that crash in the tide pools of feminism. Thus, if you easily confuse politics with art, you can be seduced into imagining (as I think Baker has) that Sturges could be the genuine photographic article.

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.
Clearly Baker means us to see Phyllis as a kind of autistic academic, a feminist mirror of Jared; like him, she's unable to empathize with the "male gaze," and again like him, she's driven to near-hysteria whenever she has to deal with threat, or even change. Now I'm no fan of Phyllis's type (as Hub Review readers surely know), but at the same time I'm afraid I felt Annie Baker short-changes her Dworkin factotum - because she never gets a worthy antagonist.  Certainly Frank doesn't count as one; he's a pony-tailed Buddhist who likes women almost as much as he likes getting off on them; maybe he's horny, but he's obviously harmless - and so is Jared, a nervous boy who only wants to be a man. If all the guys in the world were aging hippies or man-boys with Asperger's, then we wouldn't have too much trouble with "the male gaze," would we - and we could write Phyllis off as a maniac. But of course that's not the case.

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!


  1. Where is your distaste for an entire generation coming from?

    Jesus H. Christ, this is hateful.

  2. Josh, this is the kind of comment that I know passes for “dialogue” on sites like Parabasis, where groupthink and peer pressure masquerade as critique. But it doesn’t really fly here at the Hub Review. It’s true that I often criticize millennials - as I criticize everyone! - and I know that for many of them, this is a shockingly new experience that they may perceive as “hate” (as you seem to do). But what can I say? Get used to it – indeed, get used to MORE of it; the site grows more and more popular, so I’m not about to change my approach. And please begin to understand that in your hyper-sensitive way, you clearly try to censor other people, which I think is not cool.

  3. Autism as a metaphor for political correctitude is interesting but the metaphor only goes so far: I can feel compassion for people with autism-spectrum disorders, but very little for the politically correct.

    High-functioning people with autism have a real cognitive deficit in their ability to perceive and interpret emotional and social information-- most of them know that they are missing nuances and subtlties and generally wish they understood. The politically correct willfully refuse to grasp these things.

  4. Good thoughts - and while I don't think Baker intends a literal, point-by-point comparison between autism and political correctness, still, that's basically her theme (a theme that none of the print critics has even perceived; maybe they're autistic, too). For the record, Phyllis does, in the final scene, suddenly seem to see through her earlier positions; but this happens so fast, and so off-handedly, that it raises more questions about her than it answers. If she had engaged with Frank more directly over the course of the drama, I think we'd have had - well, more of a DRAMA, rather than a submerged sketching out of a political idea.

  5. I haven't actually seen it yet, but I do think it an interesting metaphor.

    What's distinct is that even with the most high-functioning people with autism, the people who love them often have to act as buffers, or micromanagers in personal interactions with the larger world-- the ones who are particularly gifted, when turned loose without guidance, seem to be bewildered as to why the world's problems are not simply issues of mechanics.

    The politically correct actually will themselves into that world view, and will try to use whatever social skills they have (some are quite charming, of course) to ostracize those who who remind them that the world is more complex than that!

    And so the discussion thread turns back up itself.