People with Asperger's syndrome are often said to lack empathy. But no matter how emphatically Jared, a character in the deft and funny Body Awareness, denies such a diagnosis, his social aptitude certainly comes up short. When he sees his mother crying, he doesn't ask why—he demands a snack. And when trying to chat with his mother's partner, he asks her about growing old and unattractive.
Playwright Annie Baker, however, has empathy in spades. That's on full display in this engrossing and humorous production, which examines how we attempt to understand those around us—and how spectacularly we sometimes fail. The play takes place in the fictional Shirley, Vt., a small college town whose denizens make organic stew, quote Deepak Chopra and hang abstract art above overstuffed bookshelves. Her characters are idiosyncratic, flawed and instantly relatable: psychology professor Phyllis, a stubborn feminist; her inquisitive and emotional partner, Joyce; Joyce's awkward 21-year-old son, Jared, an autodidact and budding lexicographer who still lives at home; and Frank, the free spirit who's been invited to show his photographs as part of the college's Body Awareness Week. But Phyllis finds Frank's subject—nude women of all ages and shapes—exploitative and offensive, going so far as to describe him as "evil manifest." Joyce disagrees. Conflict mounts.
Phyllis (Gretchen Corbett, who also directs) is a bit thinly characterized, and her dismissal of Frank happens too quickly to feel wholly probable, but little else here feels contrived. Sharonlee McLean is marvelous as Joyce: well-meaning and a bit intrusive, with virtuoso inflection and ace comic timing. As Jared, Josh Weinstein slumps his shoulders and thrusts his head forward, eyes darting side to side, like a turtle peeking out from its shell. Weinstein is deeply affecting and never succumbs to caricature, even as he shoves an electric toothbrush into his mouth to soothe himself during uncomfortable moments—such as when he receives halting and hilarious tips about women from Frank (an excellent Gavin Hoffman).
Questionable advice aside, Frank brings a generous helping of heart to a trio snarled in rationality. This is, perhaps, the play's greatest strength: Deftly juggling emotion and reason, it slyly tugs at the heartstrings but is too smart to pander to sappy sentiment.
SEE IT: Body Awareness is at the CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 220-2646. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Through Nov. 10. $20-$25, Thursdays are "pay what you will."