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Body Awareness

The current Jewish Repertory Theatre production of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness is particularly worthy of mention as this 2008 play represents the first success by the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. She won the prize for Flick, which follows ushers in a movie theater. While Body Awareness is clearly an early work by a promising playwright only recently sprung from an academic world, the signs of greatness yet to come are apparent in Baker’s portrayal of an unconventional family whose problems are purged in unexpected and unconventional ways.

Kristen Tripp Kelley plays Joyce, a school teacher whose 21-year-old son Jared still lives with her and may have Asperger’s syndrome—a possibility he rejects with hostility. Adam Yellen plays the socially inept young man. Eileen Dugan plays Joyce’s lover, Phyllis, a college professor who is hosting a “Body Awareness” week at her small Vermont campus.

Complications between these characters are forced into motion when the family plays host to a visiting artist, Frank, played with creepy self-assurance and charm by Tim Newell. His art? He takes photographs of naked female subjects, including underage girls. Feminist Phyllis almost becomes unhinged.

The beauty of the play lies in the manner in which each character’s flaws mesh with the flaws of the others. This is also its flaw. The relationships seem to have been mapped out in advance on paper. As a result, reactions often seem perfunctory rather than motivated. Every ripple in this pond is greeted with instant fury. Phyllis is particularly lacking in the empathy we are told Jared lacks—yes, I know, that’s the point, but it seems mechanical when she coldly tells her girlfriend she is not an academic, when she instantly flies into a rage after learning that Frank’s photos are female nudes, when she smacks Jared down for every social miscalculation.

As often, however, the payoff is sublime. A pivotal scene in which Frank gives Jared horrifically bad advice on how to get a girlfriend is simultaneously hilarious and nightmarish. Its consequences will be life altering for everyone.

Saul Elkin has directed a first-rate cast that seems able to rise above the play’s imperfections. The people seem real and believable, and Baker’s artful resolution of her plot is delightful, as every character emerges with greater awareness of both self and others. The production continues through June 1.

For ticket information, dates, and times for these productions see the On the Boards section.