By clinical definition, a lack of empathy is one of the crucial traits found in people afflicted with Asperger's syndrome. In Annie Baker's fiercely funny Body Awareness, which is receiving its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, the lack of empathy doesn't need a medical diagnosis. It's almost universal.
One of the play's four characters clearly does have Aspergers, if we compare his quirks to the symptoms enumerated on WebMD. He's named Jared, and played with a jagged mixture of charm and ferocity by by Patrick Russell.
Jared is 21, fearful of contact with anyone outside his home, always awkward and sometimes violent in speech and action toward others, clunky in gait and stooped in posture, and obsessively focused on a single intellectual pursuit: the English language as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Using a magnifying glass, he even reads the tiny-print version at the dinner table.
But the others among Baker's characters have no clinical rationale for the pains they inflict. Their motivation is purely theatrical, and their offenses are designed to generate laughter. By that criterion, the bright, brisk production directed by Joy Carlin is hugely successful.
Jared's mother, Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen), is the gentlest among them, and the most capable of winning audience empathy. She's a schoolteacher who switched sexual orientation after many years in an apparently miserable marriage, then moved in with a female partner, taking Jared along. But she hasn't completely given up on males.
Her partner, Phyllis (Amy Resnick) views men with suspicion if not outright hostility. She's a passionately feminist professor of psychology at a liberal college in a tiny Vermont town, but her understanding of psychology doesn't extend to the putdowns she directs at Joyce.
An example: At one early point she declares that professors are "academics," holding an exalted place in any ranking of human callings. Mere high school teachers, like Joyce, just aren't in the same league. She makes that perspective bluntly clear.
Their relationship seems essentially tranquil and supportive, however. Not even Jared's horrific outbursts, which mix insults, outrage and physical threats, can shake its bonds.
But that relationship stumbles into rocky terrain when the women open their doors to a guest, an artist whose works are featured during the school's Body Awareness Week. It's a bad move.
Strike one: The guest is male, named Frank. Strike two: Frank is a photographer who specializes in female nudes. Strike three: Joyce likes him, and agrees to pose for his camera, provoking jealousy and a bit of hysteria from Phyllis. (Don't ask why the guy has been invited to stay with the couple, or why Phyllis doesn't initially seem to know about the nudes. Baker conveniently leaves those puzzles unanswered, lest they interfere with the comic momentum.)
That's chemistry enough for a broad satire directed at liberal attitudes and institutions, mercurial sexual choices and political correctness, among other things. But Frank's slack-jawed cloddishness, in the portrayal by Howard Swain, pushes the tone beyond satire and toward cruelty. It's a cartoon that injects a sour note into a play that already strains credibility too often.
Frank is not only the catalyst for stresses between the women but also the trigger for the play's most dramatic event, which involves Jared and stems from the young man's social and sexual frustration. Out of deference to anyone who plans to see the show, I'll say only that Frank attempts to mentor Jared about ways to connect with women, and fails miserably.
But Frank's effort also fails miserably in dramatic terms; it displays him as a thoughtless boob whose character belies his success in a career that had to demand the ability to win friends and understand people. The contradiction goes beyond the bounds of comic exaggeration and damages the play as a whole.
Body Awareness is the first full production of a Baker script that has been mounted in the Bay Area but almost certainly won't be the last. She is not yet 30, and already has won two Obies for best new American play. With any kind of luck, her future forays into the region will be more fully realized.
Body Awareness has been extended to run through March 11 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$48, from (510) 843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org.
Photos courtesy of David Allen, davidallenstudio.com.
An earlier version of this article erroneously said the production is a West Coast premiere. It is a Bay Area premiere.