What other theater troupe in town has a more appropriate name to produce Annie Baker's neo-feminist, warm, perceptive comedy Body Awareness than Stark Naked Theatre Company? What other company in town could do it so well?
It's Body Awareness Week at Shirley State College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, and our typical American family prepares. Lesbian professor Phyllis (Pamela Vogel), who wears her feminism like chain mail to ward off objectification and that evil male gaze, has scheduled an exciting program of guest lecturers and performers -- puppet theater, Palestinian schoolchildren, a domestic violence quilt and artist Frank (Drake Simpson). Phyllis doesn't realize that Frank's art entails taking photos of naked women, all sizes and shapes -- all ages, too. He's the embodiment of everything she despises. Her partner Joyce (Kim Tobin), with much less of an edge, wears her political correctness like a comfy blanket, more to hide from the world than wield as defense. Living with them is Joyce's 21-year-old son Jared (Matt Lents), who has Asperger's syndrome. When house guest Frank moves in for the week, the prickly jousting among the four sets off sparks. The heat Frank engenders threatens to melt the partnership and damage the already frail Jared -- and might just propel Joyce to pose naked.
Throughout the play, Baker flies her woman's flag proudly, but fortunately never surrounds it with trumpets. Her softly etched characters won't let her get away with it. Baker finds the delicate humor within the situations, although it's all terribly serious at the time to them. One of the running gags has pedantic Phyllis writing each day of the seminar on the blackboard as she introduces that day's topic and guest. As her home life spirals out of control, so does the writing on the blackboard. By Thursday, all that's left of her steely resolve is a limp "TH." It's a sweet touch that softens her considerably.
With delicate shading from director Philip Lehl, the ensemble quartet sparkles under an array of details. No actor does embarrassed normalcy better than Tobin. From her first scene, in which she tries to conduct a regular mom-and-son conversation with Jared, who's racked up a big credit card bill for Internet porn, she grounds the play in the ordinary. Tobin's an immediately likable presence, an Everyman we all relate to, and she lets Joyce "come out" with a natural, unforced ease.
Vogel doesn't mind if we find Phyllis hard and unrelenting; she plays her without wanting our sympathy. When she gives Joyce the ultimatum about the photo shoot -- me or the picture -- Vogel shows the cracks in the facade with tiny piercing glances. She aims them like a vengeful yet hurt Diana, goddess of the hunt.
As fox in the henhouse, Simpson romps as either regular guy or sleazy opportunist. Baker writes him this way, which lets us decide whether to trust him or run away. In his man-to-man scene with asocial Jared, who wants to know the secret of getting laid, he plays it tempered and low-key. His advice is suspect, but he genuinely wants to help young Jared. During the dinner scene, he surprises with the reciting of the Hebrew Friday prayer, which prompts Joyce to tears and Phyllis to jealousy. We never know what his motives are for taking those nude photos; Simpson wisely keeps it that way.
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As confused, afflicted Jared, Matt Lents is haunting. With detailed physicality, he looks away self-consciously during confrontations, paws his hair, continually adjusts his glasses or shoots out an arm with uncontrolled jerkiness. He keeps his mother at bay with a shout, or cruelly puts down Phyllis with a cutting remark about her lack of attractiveness. "I'm an autodidact," he says with pride, knowing the exact meaning of the word to prove to everybody, including himself, that he's not sick. It's a portrait etched in fright and filled with empathy, a word Jared later learns all about. After his comically fey performance as Shaw's Marchbanks for Classical Theatre two seasons past and now this searing one, Lents is definitely on a roll, and surely an actor to watch.
Jodi Bobrovsky's imaginative gray-and-white etching of a set is like a classroom/dollhouse designed by Edward Gory. Clint Allen lights this with simple elegance, while Macy Perrone's costumes look appropriately lived in and just right for these four mismatched souls looking for love. The verdict:
Stark Naked lays out Annie Baker's thesis comedy in intriguing fashion. With these pros at the head of the class, we never realize how thoroughly we've been schooled.