There’s a sly clue in Walt Spangler’s set design that suggests how the world of “Body Awareness” is going to fall apart. Playwright Annie Baker, making her Off Broadway debut, drops a liberated lesbian couple in Vermont, gives them socially aware jobs, and fills their fridge with organic grape juice and vegetarian soup. But in their boho-tasteful kitchen, the cabinets are twice as tall as they are. Even if they tried, they couldn’t reach the top shelves, and they have similar trouble living up to their ultra-lefty standards.
With naturalistic dialogue and a symbolic narrative structure, Baker humanizes a liberal crisis. Her lead characters — fierce academic Phyllis (Mary McCann) and crunchy “cultural studies” teacher Joyce (JoBeth Williams) — only want to nurture each other and Joyce’s son Jared (Jonathan Clem), but their worldview keeps failing them. Forced to adapt their philosophies, they embody two compelling methods for turning scholarly thought into practical action.
Baker defines their positions with personal details. For instance, when a photographer named Frank (Peter Friedman as an unrepentant hippie) boards with the women while showing his work at Phyllis’ college, McCann seethes with resentment over his blithe, masculine confidence. He casually asks for wine, and she snaps that they don’t keep liquor in the house: Her scorn says she loathes being taken for granted.
Baker and director Karen Kohlhaas find humor in Phyllis’ convictions but they never mock them. In transitional monologues, she explains why she fights to make women “aware,” and her opinions make sense.
But so do Joyce’s. Tempted by Frank’s suggestion that she pose nude for him, she struggles to decide if he’s objectifying or empowering her.
Williams plays Joyce as a sweet woman awakening to her own opinions, which smartly contrasts with McCann’s coiled energy. When the two share scenes, they spark like firecrackers, adding heat to the intellectual quest.
The men make strong impressions, too. Frank, whose tiny ponytail is the grace note of Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s spot-on costume design, is more than just an outsider bringing trouble: He’s an intelligent counter-argument that makes room for men, booze and “improper” thoughts.
And though Jared has Asperger’s syndrome, he’s no cheap gimmick. Instead, he’s a complicated, surly 21-year-old who refuses to admit he’s ill. His conversations with Frank, and their troubling results, make the second half sting.
Scribe only occasionally loses her footing. To mark time, characters write the days of the week on a chalkboard, but it’s a distracting, self-conscious conceit. Precociousness also mars the conclusion, which makes everything tidily poetic –implying everything is better because a man showed up, which probably wasn’t the intention.
But those fumbles are likely just growing pains. Overall, this is an impressive start for an interesting new writer.