The Family That Frays Together: Campus body week wreaks household havoc.
The Family That Frays Together: Campus body week wreaks household havoc.

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Suggested timepasser for your next long car trip: Persuade your fellow passengers you don’t suffer from Asperger’s Disorder.

That’s the plight of Jared, the most memorable character in Body Awareness, the 2008 drama that cemented Annie Baker as an important new playwright. In the work’s local premiere at Theater J, Jared is, at 21, supercilious, dismissive, and even threatening to those he sees as his intellectual inferiors. Played with vulnerable pique by Adi Stein, Jared still lives at home, he’s prone to screaming fits, he’s never kissed a girl (or boy), and his favorite book is the Oxford English Dictionary. (He likes Crime & Punishment, too.) Having memorized the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s, he’s forever debating his way around them—“I’m listening and asking questions!”—while embodying every box on the checklist.

Completing the household is Jared’s mom’s live-in girlfriend, an academic professionally obsessed with “the fucking male gaze.” Bad luck, then, that the programming she’s arranged for fictional Shelley State’s Body Awareness Week—“not Eating Disorders Awareness Week,” she corrects us—includes billeting Frank, a visiting male photographer specializing in female nudes. When Jared’s mom seems responsive to Frank’s wandering silver-fox swagger, the deck of their happy if unconventional home begins to list.

As with Baker’s follow-up play, Circle Mirror Transformation, the humor here is keenly observed and absent any cruelty. In the role of Phyllis, the professor given to reading aloud from Womens’ Bodies, Womens’ Wisdom, Susan Lynskey never presents as a prude. Frank, as played by Michael Kramer, doesn’t become the predatory creep Phyllis assumes him to be. He even tries to give Jared some fatherly advice on how to approach women—and it would be sound advice, were Jared just an unusually shy kid and not afflicted by a behavioral disorder. That line is often faint or invisible, and there’s the rub.

The show’s quietest and best performance comes from MaryBeth Wise, who shows us her love for her hard-to-love son, her devotion to Phyllis, and her attraction to Frank in persuasive, almost entirely nonverbal ways. he shoe twirl she does as she begins to undress tells us everything about her own unfulfilled longings. In the space of a couple of seconds, we’re reminded that a committed, long-term relationships is a choice that demands sacrifice.

Mercifully, no one says that. That restraint is a hallmark of Baker’s writing. It extends to her affectionate jabs at politically correct campus culture, and it extends to where she chooses to leave us. Having rendered her characters fully, she advances their lives incrementally and steps away.