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'Awareness' growing in the wilderness

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

Annie Baker's "Body Awareness," at Theater J, is a lighthearted play that manages to touch on some serious philosophical and sociological subjects. It catches a mother, Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), and her 21-year-old son, Jared (Adi Stein), in an unending mother-son clash, but as it waits for Jared and Joyce to reconcile, "Body Awareness" takes hilarious aim at political correctness, sexual politics, pedantry, feminism, the male ego and what some would call the fine line between art and pornography.

The setting is Vermont's fictional Shirley State College, where a five-day conference on body awareness is being called into session by one of its organizers, psychology professor Phyllis (Susan Lynskey), who also happens to be Joyce's partner. Although Phyllis has high hopes for her conferees being able to see themselves in a new way, freed from controlling, manipulative eyes, she is soon unmasked as a fraud: She is condescending to Joyce and insensitive. Throughout the play, Phyllis and Joyce try to convince the socially clumsy Jared that he has Asperger's syndrome, in an effort to make him agree to undergo therapy. Jared, who is nobody's fool, refuses. Into this psychological maelstrom steps a character who is designed to make things worse: Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer), an artist whose photographs of nude women are on display during the conference. Phyllis sets up a hue and cry.

To complicate matters, the self-assured Bonitatibus has been housed with Joyce and Phyllis. Joyce begins to warm to Bonitatibus, infuriating the rigid Phyllis, who gets jealous.

By the end of the play, Jared and his mother not only come together, they begin to resolve their personal disorders. Jared tries to grow up. Joyce sheds her continual need to protect herself and everyone around her.

If you go
'Body Awareness'
» Where: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW
» When: Through Sept. 23
» Info: $15 to $60; 202-494-TIXS (8497); theaterj.org

Director Eleanor Holdridge keeps the play's excellent cast performing at a lively pace, including meaningful pauses to fully display the oddity of this quartet of individuals. Stein is particularly engaging as the distraught Jared, who energetically resists his mother's control.

Daniel Ettinger's set, showing Phyllis and Joyce's bedroom upstairs and their dining room/kitchen downstairs, is built and furnished completely in wood, creating a very credible upscale, rustic, Vermontish air. You know there's organic granola in those cupboards.

The best part about "Body Awareness" is that it functions outside categories, inviting the mind to explore new territory, to enjoy a world that flirts with, but ultimately rejects, stereotypes. It's not satire, it's not pure cynicism. It allows for positive thoughts, but is not utopian. "Body Awareness" is full of intriguing ideas, and by the end of the play, those ideas make as much sense as anything can in a world where human imperfection is such an integral part of the landscape.

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