Before Pinch 'n' Ouch Theatre's comedy Body Awareness begins to explore the challenges of nontraditional relationships, playwright Annie Baker gently pranks the Ivory Tower. Phyllis (Daryl Fazio), a psychology professor, has organized Body Awareness Week at a small Vermont college and throughout the play she gives little speeches that reveal the silliness of the event.
For instance, Body Awareness Week began as National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, but the college changed the name to make the mission more positive. Now the event includes a range of speakers and performers, such as the Palestinian Youth Dance Troupe, that have no apparent connection to body awareness but live up to fuzzy goal of multiculti sensitivity. Ironically, a photographic exhibit of nude women of various types seems most thematically relevant, yet enrages Phyllis as an example of the exploitative "white male gaze." Baker's play proves less interested in physical issues than the challenge of forming emotional connections to other people.
Phyllis lives with her partner, Joyce (Kathleen Wattis), who was married to a man for 10 years and has a troubled 21-year-old son, Jared (Barrett Doyle). Jared insists he doesn't have Asperger's Syndrome, even though his difficulty relating to others and his compulsive habits suggest otherwise. He works in a McDonald's, compulsively reads the dictionary and, when stressed, comforts himself with an electric toothbrush.
As part of Body Awareness Week, Phyllis opens their home to visiting artist Frank (Jayson Smith). Frank travels the country photographing women who volunteer to disrobe for him. Neither the script nor Smith's performance turn Frank into a caricature of a porny sleazeball. He's more of a Tao-style macho hippie who makes a show of emphasizing his spiritual side, clearly as a means of attracting women. When women chose to be photographed in the nude, he asserts, "It's an individual personal thing that also has a chance to be part of something large and important." Phyllis instantly loathes Frank and his work, while Joyce becomes flirty and intrigued.
Body Awareness so sharply sets up tensions between the characters that half the fun comes from anticipating how their different wants and quirks will eventually collide. Justin Anderson's direction maximizes the comedic implications of lines like, "I don't mean this in a bad way, but ... ." When sounding judgmental is practically a crime, overly sensitive conversation can actually get in the way of expressing emotions. Fazio and Wattis' scenes together bring out both the affection and the hurt feelings between two people on the verge of a crisis. Body Awareness incorporates academic satire but also naturalistic scenes that feel like genuine encounters, particularly when Anderson draws out the pauses in a dinner-table chat when Phyllis and Jared struggle to get along. Fortunately Doyle doesn't oversell Jared's tics, so his personality comes across as difficult but not necessarily disabled.
Baker's play shares some plot similarities with last year's Oscar-nominated movie The Kids Are All Right. In both, a lesbian couple faces conflict when a laid-back Lothario drops into their lives. And both include funny, squirmy scenes in which a mother awkwardly talks about sex with her immature son. Body Awareness's resemblance to the film suggests a fascination with the unconventional households of today and the need to come up with new ways to engage with the old problems of how to get along.