UNEASY LIVING Appleman, Blackmer, and Carpenter. [Photo by Brian Gagnon]
The male gaze. Men can think of it as merely admiring, complimentary. Woman may consider it creepy. Such is the annoying conflict between the two sub-species that Wilbury Group is examining with Annie Baker's Body Awareness, directed by Wendy Overly (through April 6). We get a sometimes humorous, sometimes anguished discussion of the matter, as we are invited to think about some questions rather than being directed to any conclusions.
We are in Shirley, Vermont, the setting of two other plays by Baker. The playwright likes to have us simply hang out with a few characters, last season's low-key Circle Mirror Transformation at the Gamm being another good example.
There are only four characters, which keeps the action intimate. Phyllis (Karen Carpenter), a college professor, and Joyce (Claire Blackmer), a high school teacher, have been a couple for three years. Joyce's 21-year-old son Jared (Samuel Appleman) lives with them, providing a relentless background tension. Incessantly angry at having Asperger's Syndrome, he won't admit to suffering the disorder.
Into their home comes Frank Bonitatibus (Kerry Callery), a visiting artist in a program Phyllis is in charge of (it's National Eating Disorder Week, but she insists on calling it Body Awareness Week). To the distress of Phyllis, Frank's art consists of going around the country photographing nudes. Women. From prepubescents through elderly, all now on display at the university.
Phyllis has to promote the exhibition, though it offends her to the very core as being exploitative. She is a feminist of the old school, in contrast to the laughing, strip-teasing post-feminists. Joyce isn't offended by Frank's photographs, but Phyllis objects so much to "the male gaze and image ownership" that in the last of her daily body awareness talks at the university she isn't even coherent (Carpenter is allowed to exaggerate this to what comes across as a nervous breakdown, though extreme exasperation is the most that makes sense in the play).
Even such an emotional a character, it's Jared who provides the racing heartbeat of this play. Constantly overwrought, now and then threatening physical violence to his mother, the only way he has to soothe himself is to rub his gums with an electric toothbrush. Yet in one delightful scene he provides the funniest moment of the play, his unfocused eyes the center of a spreading seraphic glow as Frank advises him on how to have sex with a girl.
Jared projects his self-loathing onto others, calling everyone imbeciles, to the point of getting fired from McDonald's. He's obsessed with etymology, poring over two thick OED volumes for word origins and precise meanings. Why such attention to him in a play about the ambiguity of appropriate male appreciation of the female image? It strikes us that Jared fits so well when, toward the end, Phyllis laments, "But if there's no right answer, why does the dictionary even exist?"
The playwright draws Phyllis sympathetically, but her empathy seems to lie more with Joyce. Phyllis casually tells her that she can't accurately refer to herself as an academic, oblivious to how condescending she sounds. Empathy is the crux of this play, represented best by Jared desperately wanting to prove that he's capable of it, to be worthy of motherly love as well as to avoid the Asperger's label.