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THEATER REVIEW: “Body Awareness” hits a few bad notes

“We want to feel seen without feeling judged -- if that’s possible.” – Phyllis

But most of us are quite willing to judge, pigeonhole or otherwise not see others, asserts Annie Baker in “Body Awareness,” in its West Coast premiere through July 30 at ion theatre in Hillcrest.

The first of a trilogy of plays set in the small fictional college town of Shirley, Vermont, “Body Awareness” posits a quartet of characters with preconceived notions and a situation which will force them to re-examine some of those attitudes.

Prickly feminist psychology professor Phyllis (Dana Hooley) and the more conciliatory Joyce (Linda Libby) are a lesbian couple of three years’ standing. They live with Joyce’s surly but bright 21-year-old son Jared (Eric Parmer), who not only repeatedly insists that he is “an autodidact” but reads the Oxford English Dictionary for fun – and because he wants to work for the dictionary one day.

Meanwhile, he toils with “imbeciles” at McDonalds, has an unnatural attachment to an electric toothbrush – but no friends – and seems to enjoy annoying his mother and Phyllis, who suspect Asperger’s Syndrome – a diagnosis (and pigeonhole) Jared utterly rejects. Jared also spends an extraordinary amount of time denying that he’s “retarded” – which no one has suggested.

It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Phyllis has renamed it Body Awareness Week and serves as announcer for the week-long series of events and speakers at Shirley State.

Sparks begin to fly when photographer Frank (Walter Ritter) – one of the invited guests – shows up as their houseguest. An exhibit of Frank’s female nudes will hang in the student union all week. Phyllis’ feminist sensibility drives her to label the photos “manipulative and evil” without even seeing them. Joyce finds his photos beautiful and in fact considers posing for him herself.

Frank poses another threat in the connection he and Joyce make through their mutual Jewishness by association (each spent a decade married to a Jew).

Jared views Frank as a kindred spirit – “You’re not retarded; you live with two women,” Frank tells him – and Jared hopes he will have some useful dating advice.

It’s a good setup for a meditation on some of the intellectual constructs that keep humans from connecting with each other. Frank puts it this way: “We forget to pay attention to what we could see if we just stopped using our brains so much.”

Baker’s first play has a few false notes. An academic would most likely at least look at the photos before accusing Frank of objectifying women. And the ending is a bit too pat.

Libby is solid (as always) as Joyce, trying to keep the household together but longing to get out of the box for a bit and try something new.

Hooley’s Phyllis is a bit baffling. Her academic edges show, but what I can only conclude is a directorial choice has her suddenly adopting an unlikely reverential, almost breathless tone in those on-mike announcements. The difference is jarring.

Ritter does something similarly off-putting. Though Frank’s presence may seem intrusive, there’s no evidence he’s the slimebag Phyllis thinks he is. Ritter’s use of his voice in that wonderfully oily, sleazy way works in some contexts, but here it gives the wrong impression.

The find in this cast is Parmer, a Grossmont College grad headed off to UC Irvine in the fall, whose spot-on portrayal of the sometimes blunt, often defensive, always socially challenged Jared provides an anchor for the adults careening around him.

Baker is a new and welcome talent. I’d like to see more of her work.

The details

“Body Awareness” plays through July 30, 2011 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave..

For tickets, call (619) 600-5020 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.