Bodies and Bodings: Two theaters putting bods on seats, or not

The title of Annie Baker’s absorbing play Body Awareness works on several levels. It relates to “Body Awareness Week” at a semi-fictional New England college (Baker grew up in Amherst, so even though the play takes place in “Shirley, Vermont,” her satirical barbs don’t fall far from home), to a controversial exhibit of nude female photographs that’s part of the week’s events and the ambiguous motives of the male photographer, to a woman who’s tempted to pose for him, and to the inchoate sexual longings of a young male virgin.

But even more than those thematic connections, Baker is interested in the intricate, conflicting, overlapping and contradictory relationships of her four characters. They are Joyce, a high school “Cultural Studies” teacher, whose grown son, Jared, is on the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum and strenuously denies it, and whose partner, Phyllis, a professor at the college, has invited Frank, the photographer of nude women, to stay with them during his exhibition.

Frank’s arrival is when things start getting unsettled. Phyllis is outraged to discover the subject-matter of his “art,” Joyce is fascinated by it, and by him, and Jared is encouraged to go out girl-hunting. Bruce McKenzie plays the role in Chester Theatre Company’s current production (through Sunday), and he’s effective up to a point. He’s low-key and respectful, but enigmatic enough to make us wonder about the sleaze, and enough of a guy-guy to make his lesson in seduction for Jared both convincing and a wee bit, okay, sleazy. What’s missing, I think, is whimsy, the kind of mercurial charm that lets Frank get away with turning his first dinner with the family into a Shabbos celebration—this from a gentile, on a Tuesday.

Bruce McKenzie (Frank), David Rosenblatt (Jared) , Caitlin McDonough-Thayer (Phyllis). Rick Teller photo.

As Phyllis and Joyce, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer and Jennifer Rohn make a marvelously mismatched couple—that is, made for each other in the way opposites often are: the one a bag of nerves when addressing the college community at the Body Awareness events but a blistering combatant in the bedroom with her partner and in the kitchen with her guest; the other more passive and pliant, as well as a patient-on-the-outside, hair-tearing-on-the-inside mother to her exasperating son. And David Rosenblatt gives a credible portrait of Jared, 21-year-old with the vocabulary of a lexicographer with the emotional intelligence of a middle-schooler, without overselling the tics and obsessions.

Knut Adams’ production is nicely balanced, allowing the playwright’s multiple ambiguities to just be. I particularly admired his willingness to draw out the pauses in conversations until just past the point of discomfort—which is where the characters in this play live.

Same Time, Same Old

The full house at last week’s performance bodes well for Chester’s prospects: programming smart contemporary plays that demand attention, invite thought and, not incidentally, draw crowds to the company’s out-of-the-way hilltop. By contrast, I wonder if the half-full house I was part of last week at the Berkshire Theatre Group has any forebodings for this and other Berkshire companies.

Mind you, BTG operates three theaters, one of which, the Unicorn, does deliver contemporary work—some of it, like the recent *Extremities, as challenging as anything the region can offer. But as if in reaction to that modernity, the company’s Stockbridge flagship, the venerable Fitzpatrick Mainstage, is halfway through a season of old chestnuts, and the annual summer musical in Pittsfield’s lavish Colonial Theatre was Oklahoma! which is celebrating its 70th birthday this year.

The sparsely attended show I caught last week is Same Time, Next Year, Bernard Slade’s sweet 1975 two-hander about two married people who meet each year for a romantic weekend. The scenes follow them at five-year intervals for a quarter-century, each vignette bringing us up to date on their separate lives and indicating the era via stereotypical social trends and fashions of the time: from the buttoned-down fifties through the swinging sixties and into the new-age seventies.

Corinna May and David Adkins. Chris Frisina photo

The show was a Broadway hit four decades ago (and a successful movie with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn), but today it comes off as a rather tired period piece, too old to be current but too new to be classic. Two of my favorite Berkshire performers, David Adkins and Corinna May, bring intelligence and sparks of life to the proceedings, but you can almost taste the effort. Even working with these two talents, Kyle Fabel’s production seems merely dutiful, even down to the between-scenes transitions, when stagehands dressed as the hotel’s housekeeping staff perform half-cute, perfunctory routines while updating the bed linens, to the accompaniment of painfully square cover versions of representative pop songs from each era.

I have nothing against midcentury drama, romantic comedy or even popular revivals. But I don’t see the logic behind one of the region’s premier professional theaters programming this show, as well as the season opener, The Lion in Winter, both of which are regularly seen on community theater stages. Fortunately, the next mainstage offering, Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, is a genuine and rarely seen classic—the kind of old-timer that’s well worth reviving.

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Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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