There’s nothing wrong with a small play that has modest goals. God knows it beats some of the gargantuan productions that aim high and fall miserably short. Still, sometimes a play can be a bit too small and coy for its own good.
Such is the case with Body Awareness, now at the Beck Center. Set in a small town in Vermont this play by Annie Baker focuses on a middle-aged lesbian couple, Phyllis and Joyce, and Joyce’s son and would-be-etymologist Jared who has some form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Phyllis, a strong-willed feminist, is in the midst of leading a week-long “Body Awareness Week” at the local college where she teaches.
As the play works its way through the week (and the play's non-too-subtle premise), we see how Jared torments his mother and Phyllis with his Asperger’s-triggered attitudinal issues. He’s blunt and aggressive, not aware of how his words impact others, but Joyce quietly perseveres as she tries to make their home a pleasant and loving space.
During the week, one of the guest lecturers Frank arrives, to stay in the same house for a couple days. Phyllis is instantly bent out of shape because she learns that he takes nude photographs of females, of various ages. Her sudden distaste for his artistic endeavors feels forced and odd. In any case, the various issues of “body awareness” are neatly arrayed—Jared trapped in his not-quite-functional body, Joyce and Phyllis trying to work out their same-sex relationship, and (sleazy?) Frank hanging around and inserting himself in their discussions.
Playwright Baker is a deft writer and there are a number of chuckles to be found in the play, but it all feels a bit too contrived. And director David Vegh doesn’t use his talented cast in the best ways possible. As Joyce, Anne McEvoy seems to float a bit too high above the events swirling around her, while Julia Kolibab comes off as a bit fuzzy and indistinct as Phyllis. Phyllis’ mini-lectures at college, which punctuate each of the days of the week, should be funnier than they are. Plus, there is little sexual (or any other) chemistry between these two characters. Since McEvoy and Kolibab are exceptionally talented actors, it appears that Vegh was unable to help them find their characters’ sweet spot in this fragile work.
The same is true with Rick Montgomery Jr. as Frank, who appears out of the blue and never rings true as either a photographer or a mystical purveyor of wisdom (a non-Jew, he insists on leading a Friday evening Sabbath service earlier in the week).
Richie Gagen is strong and funny as Jared, perhaps because his character exists outside the conventional grid of family relationships. Jared is always saying unexpected things, and Gagen makes them amusing while retaining the inherent humanity of the young man.
Since too many of the scenes are meandering and slow, the 90-minute one-act feels longer than it’s actual run time. This is a show that needs to be performed with crisp timing, not with the casual and indulgent pacing that director Vegh has employed. And that’s too bad, because the Beck cast is clearly capable of much more.
Through November 6 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.