By Bill Hirschman
One of the glories and curses of art and entertainment is how subjective the response is: Any piece will elicit a different reaction from any different observer on any different day.
This observer had trouble sussing out the cerebral depths that playwright Annie Baker intended in her quite funny meditation Body Awareness at the Island City Stage/Empire Stage production.
Fortunately, witty dialogue, intriguing performances and insightful guidance from director Michael Leeds make for an entertaining evening if not a completely comprehensible or cohesive one.
It would seem that Baker is examining our misguided obsession with body image, but that seems a bit simplistic for a script that won the 2009 Drama Desk Award for best play. There’s more going on here, but it’s not quite clear what. There are facets about homosexual relationships, living with Asperger’s Syndrome, the tyranny of political correctness, the silliness of academic navel-gazing, the difficulty of relationships in general and maybe another half-dozen points, but they seem so scattershot that you have to wonder if you’re missing their relevance.
The premise is intriguing: Phyllis and Joyce, 50-something lesbians in a loving relationship for three years, are struggling to cope with Joyce’s 26-year-old- son Jared. He’s a highly intelligent but wildly mercurial young man living at home because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, notable for socially disconnected bluntness that alienates most everyone around him with arrogant condescension and violent outbursts. (This is just one form of the disorder; my brother has it and he’s nothing like this.)
The plays parallels a five-day symposium on eating disorders, euphemistically entitled “body awareness,” that Phyllis (Merry Jo Cortada) is hosting at the trendily liberal Shirley State College where she is a psychology professor.
This delicately balanced troika is unhinged when Joyce, a high school teacher, lends a bedroom to one of the guest artists, Frank (David R. Gordon), a macho self-satisfied photographer who shoots portraits of naked women ranging in age from children to old ladies to depict a wide range of “beauty.”
Phyllis, a normally level-headed and under-control academic, becomes increasingly jealous as the pretentious fathead Frank mesmerizes Joyce (Janet Weakley) with his New Age balderdash. In fact, Joyce contemplates posing for him, enraging Phyllis who skewers Frank at every chance.
Meanwhile, Jared (Clay Cartland) seeks to prove he does not have Asperger’s by declaring he will have sex with someone, anyone. He seeks advice on how to proceed from Frank who is “a man of the world.” This gives Phyllis yet another reason to openly spar with Frank.
A four-car pile-up is inevitable, although less seems to be happening than you’d expect. A lot of talk seems to depict or lampoon ivory tower debates about feminist issues, but it’s not clear which verb is appropriate. For instance, Phyllis turns herself inside out in convoluted speeches about whether people allowing themselves to be observed (and photographed) are ceding their sovereignty to the observer in deciding whether they or anyone else is “beautiful.”
But this production has elements worth seeing, starting with Baker’s real talent for snappy repartee which Leeds and his cast know how to deliver. Cortada, in particular, has a pronounced skill for firing off cutting rejoinders that will make the stoniest audience member chortle. There’s a hysterical moment when Frank, presumptuously holding forth at the dinner table, then tells the assemblage, “I hope I’m not being presumptuous,” to which Cortada brays with precious sarcasm, “Nyah.”
Similarly, Cartland’s comic timing is dead perfect as Jared’s total lack of understanding of social niceties allows him to speak harsh truths that are startling but hilarious. Cartland is wickedly accurate portraying Jared’s blithely hurtful pronouncements that barely mask his inner fear. His Jared is so very tightly wound and defensive at the idea that he might have Asperger’s that his studied calm seems ready to immolate at any moment.
Cortada, too, skillfully mixes Phyllis’ seemingly conflicting confidence and uncertainty as her introductory remarks each day of the seminar spiral close to a public nervous breakdown.
Weakley is adequate as the Joyce but she plays such a weak, wounded character susceptible to the whims of shallow vogues that she isn’t terribly believable. Her strongest scene comes when she is on the cusp of undressing for Frank’s camera, her discomfort both funny and touching.
Gordon, who owns the Empire Stage, fearlessly plays the self-involved artsy fathead for all he’s worth. You want to slap him sometimes.
Kudos are due the actresses who have bravely embraced Baker’s thesis: their bodies and faces show the normal wear and tear of the years, yet it’s all on display in the bedroom scenes when they are lounging in their lingerie.
Island City Stage is to be commended, once again, for seeking out thoughtful and funny plays that mainstream theatergoers in South Florida are unfamiliar with. But even with proven talent like Leeds, Cortada and Cartland, it’s still striving to produce a thoroughly satisfying piece of theater.
Body Awareness plays through April 7, produced by Island City Stage and Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale (north of Sunrise just east of the railroad tracks) 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and some Thursdays, 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $30. Call (954) 678-1496 or Smarttix at (212) 868-4444 or visit Island City Stage.org