Rick Montgomery Jr., from left, Anne McEvoy, Julia Kolibab and Richie Gagen | Photo / Kathy Sandham

Beck’s ‘Body Awareness’ so low key it unlocks very little

By Bob Abelman

The New Yorker wrote last year that “we’re lucky to be living in the era of Annie Baker” when discussing the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright “who listens to people so carefully, who recreates human speech with such amusement and care, that her characters feel startlingly familiar.”

This was clearly a skill set acquired over time, for her Off-Broadway debut in 2008 in a one-act comedy, “Body Awareness,” is a decisively lesser work. It is getting a rather mundane staging at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

Set in a small college town in Vermont, the play features three characters who spend their time side-stepping each other’s psychological soft spots. They are Joyce (Anne McEvoy), a high school cultural studies teacher who identifies as lesbian after a failed marriage; her 21-year-old son Jared (Richie Gagen), who has all the telltale signs of Asperger syndrome but vehemently denies this; and Phyllis (Julia Kolibab), a feminist academic and Joyce’s live-in partner. 

With Phyllis’ college commemorating “Body Awareness Week,” a celebrated photographer of nude women and girls named Frank Bonitatibus (Rick Montgomery Jr.) is invited as a guest artist and, in one of the play’s most implausible plot points, is invited to stay at Phyllis’ home. 

Joyce finds Frank and his work alluring, Phyllis finds them repulsive, and Jared – who is socially ill-equipped to engage with others – finds them and everything else he encounters “stupid.” 

Frank’s presence so disrupts the household dynamics that Joyce, Phyllis and Jared soon find themselves pressing and occasionally pouncing on those aforementioned soft spots. All of this unfolds in Baker’s typically understated and anti-theatrical voice, where much of the humor can be found in the things left unsaid and in the pauses that exist between exchanges. 

Performing Baker’s work not only requires the mastery of the scripted words and its essential silences, but a delicate and unpretentious handling of the subtle comedy. When it all comes together, as it did in Dobama Theatre’s productions of “Circle Mirror Transformation” in 2011 and “The Aliens” in 2014, the results are miraculous and reinforce all “The New Yorker’s” accolades. 

But “Body Awareness” needs some help finding and cultivating the laughs, which this production does not offer under David Vegh’s direction. Little attention is given to the pacing, which drags. Nearly everything is flat and very little is funny.

Gagen as Jared cannot be blamed, for his affectless tone and stiff physicality sets up and serves as a wonderful and implicitly comedic counterpoint to the terse aggressiveness and quirky obsession with etymology that Baker bequeaths the character. 

But potentially funny lines aimed at his mother or Phyllis, like “Maybe you have Asperger’s.  You’re 55 and you’ve never read ‘Crime and Punishment,’” tend to result in a dramatic reaction or, worse, no reaction from McEvoy’s Joyce and Kolibab’s Phyllis, which cuts off the comedy at its source. And although their performances are deft, engaging and authentic, McEvoy and Kolibab rarely inspire much to laugh at on their own.      

Enter Frank. His scripted political incorrectness regarding Jared, lack of awareness of Phyllis’ unease with his art and “male gaze,” and absence of empathy regarding Joyce’s fragility are all intended to serve as a catalyst for humor. 

But Montgomery’s depiction of Frank has none of the ingredients necessary to make that happen. What he does bring to the table – a laid-back demeanor and devil-may-care attitude – is often at odds with the machismo or creepiness or pretension that Baker’s script seems to call for. 

This is particularly evident during one of the potentially funniest scenes in the play, where Frank gives Jared misguided and inappropriately explicit advice about approaching and sexually pleasing women. The set up and the execution seem forced and the scene is one of many that go nowhere.   

All this takes place in a home so startlingly normal in its layout and design – as rendered by Aaron Benson and lit by Marcus Dana – that it begs for something out of the ordinary to happen there. As does the audience. CV

On Stage

“Body Awareness”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts’ Studio Theater, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through Nov. 6

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News.  Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Orginally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 9, 2016.

Lead image: Rick Montgomery Jr., from left, Anne McEvoy, Julia Kolibab and Richie Gagen. Photo| Kathy Sandham