Serious laughter in ‘Body Awareness’

The teetotalers at the center of “Body Awareness” are perpetually on edge. From left to right, Joyce (MaryBethWise), Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) and Jared (Adi Stein). (Photos by C. Stanley Photography)

Playwright Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness” is a delightfully funny story that is sure to appeal to a wide audience. Baker’s witty, realistic dialogue, combined with the comedic delivery of the Theater J cast, makes this play accessible even to the non-theatergoer.

Artistic Director Ari Roth said it best when he explained why he chose “Body Awareness” to open his 16th season at the helm of Theater J. “Body Awareness” is an “artful blend of character-driven comedy, shrewd lampoon on political correctness, and nuanced look at relationships and parenting,” he said at a reception following a performance.

In the play, “Body Awareness Week” is underway at a college campus, and the event, formerly titled “Eating Disorder Awareness Week,” has run into controversy. Master of Ceremonies Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) and her partner Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) are hosting a photographer famous for nude portraits of girls and women. While Phyllis detests the photographs, Joyce considers posing for the photographer, Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer).

The play is set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vt., where public nudity was legal until 2008 and the Saturday morning farmer’s market had been a nudist hotspot. Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger created a simple set. Most of the play occurs in the cozy, shabby-chic home that Phyllis and Joyce share with Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared (Adi Stein). Seeing the characters in such private spaces gives the play an intimate feel.

Phyllis is a bespectacled, pantsuit-wearing psychology professor prone to quick pronouncements. “You are killing my soul,” she tells Joyce after hearing about her partner’s interest in posing nude. She is upbeat to the point of praising a puppet performance she disliked, evidenced by Lynskey’s wonderful facial expressions.

As Phyllis and Joyce wrestle with their opposing viewpoints, they also argue with Jared about whether he has Aspergers syndrome. Stein’s Jared is an exhausting individual, easily angered and fixated on etymology. Jared is stiff, serious and eager to refute any diagnosis. While all Baker’s characters have great lines, Jared has the best zingers and Stein’s formal delivery is terrific. For example, when Joyce and Phyllis are talking quietly in bed, Jared complains their chatter is keeping him awake. He yells from offstage that he has to be at McDonald’s for the early shift. “I actually have a job,” he spews. Phyllis counters, “We have jobs.” “In academia,” Jared retorts, prompting Joyce and Phyllis to discuss whether Joyce’s job as a high school cultural studies teacher qualifies her as an academic.

Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer), the controversial photographer in Theater J’s production of “Body Awareness,” calls women “honey” and drinks wine from abandoned cups. Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) considers posing for Frank. (Photos by C. Stanley Photography)

Baker’s script has moments of sadness and seriousness, but humor is the play’s driving force. One of the funniest scenes occurs when the photographer provides Jared with relationship advice and Joyce interrupts like a helicopter parent. Perhaps the scene is too funny. When Bonitatibus attempts to persuade Jared to try oral sex with a woman, it appears that Stein is about to burst into laughter. While understandable given Kramer’s enthusiastic delivery, laughter is out of character for Jared.

The most unexpected prop and sound element in the show is Jared’s nearly ever-present electric toothbrush. My only suggestion for sound designer Chas Marsh is that the music is too loud during scene switches.

“Body Awareness” is a strong season opener for Theater J, and a highly fun performance.

Pre-theatre dinner options abound on 17th Street, NW near the theater, which is located inside the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center. Off the Center’s lobby is the DISTRIKT Bistro, which serves tasty kosher Mediterranean dishes, but the restaurant is not ideal for a quiet dinner or private conversation.

“Body Awareness” is playing at Theater J in Washington, D.C., through Sept. 23. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays, with no performance Friday, Sept. 21. Wednesday and Thursday performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday start times vary. The Sept. 7 performance begins at 3 p.m. and the Sept. 14 performance is at noon. Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. There is a 3 p.m. performance and a 7:30 p.m. performance most Sundays, but there is only a 3 p.m. performance Sept. 16. Tickets start at $25.  Call 800.494.8497 for information.