At first glance, the ingredients of playwright Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness” may seem sitcom simple. Take a Vermont lesbian couple — Joyce, a high school cultural studies teacher, and Phyllis, a feminist academic — and their 21- year-old son, Jared, who may have Asperger’s and who trawls the naughty stuff on the Internet. Add an extremely macho visiting artist named Frank Bonitatibus who photographs nude women and girls.
Combine during a consciousness-raising “Body Awareness” week on Phyllis’s progressive campus (Shirley State College). Stir gently.
The result in the easygoing “Body Awareness” is indeed very funny, skewering everything from the professor’s pretensions to the blunt sex talk Frank delivers to Jared (who soothes his non-diagnosed but screamingly obvious disorder by sucking an electric toothbrush). The actors in Eleanor Holdridge’s unflaggingly entertaining production at Theater J plainly love this stuff, and they look good in it: Baker’s dialogue is tart and personable, with just enough unexpected twists in the characterizations to keep you leaning forward.
As with “Circle Mirror Transformation,” seen here two years ago at the Studio Theatre, the pleasures of “Body Awareness” go deeper than the high-concept stereotypes that Baker flirts with. Baker is fast becoming one of the country’s more popular playwrights — the Studio is producing another of her Vermont plays, “The Aliens,” this fall — and it may be because she has a lovely ability to comically mock types and trends while exposing the raw seams in her characters.
At Theater J, that’s most evident in Susan Lynskey’s extremely deft and engaging performance as Phyllis. It’s easy to send up the kind of feminism that detects the evil male gaze everywhere, and with her misadventures introducing the pompous programming on campus, the character could easily come across as a brittle joke.
But Lynskey doesn’t settle for a lampoon, not even when the creepy Frank trips her jealousy wire as he inevitably begins to get his hooks in Joyce (who is vulnerable to Frank’s come-ons in part because of Phyllis’s snobbery and ultimatums). Broad as she is, this Phyllis is too bruised for pure satire; Lynskey is attuned to Baker’s clues about the hurt and fragility knocking Phyllis off balance, and the actress’s reflectiveness draws you in.
Holdridge’s ensemble are all in sync on this point: The people have real problems couched in funny business. Punch lines are landed cleanly by one and all, and you get to know the figures so well that even the well-timed revving up of the toothbrush gets laughs. Adi Stein, acting with terse aggressiveness, is especially riotous as Jared, whose explosions are particularly vicious. Jared’s mother Joyce comes in for some of the sharpest insults, but Jared’s absence of social skills also leads to a severe puncturing of political correctness as the kid, in one of Baker’s most wicked moments, sabotages his own employment at McDonald’s.
MaryBeth Wise does lovely work as Joyce, the fretful mother and seemingly junior partner in the romantic relationship. (The psychological beats within the cozy house, which has a Pottery Barn vibe in Daniel Ettinger’s calculatedly rustic set, are splendidly timed all night.) Michael Kramer juicily renders the ludicrous Frank as a dude in boots and jeans with a self-serving outlaw stance on his nude pix — er, art.
There are moments when Baker seems to force the awkwardness, particularly when Frank first intrudes on the already idiosyncratic household. But mainly the agendas joust pleasingly, with Baker’s fragile warriors comically, and even touchingly, stabbing at sense.
by Annie Baker. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Lights, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; sound design, Chas Marsh. About 100 minutes. Through Sept. 23 at the DC Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8597 or visit boxofficetickets.com.