Venue: Atlantic Stage 2, New York (Through June 22). Presented by: Atlantic Theater Company.
JoBeth Williams always seems up for a challenge, having been as impressive as the special effects of “Poltergeist,” then standing her ground against seven scene-stealing co-stars in “The Big Chill,” and recently appearing on Showtime’s “Dexter.”
But Williams’ current struggle might be her toughest: Finding parts that showcase the talents of a 59-year-old actress.
It’s fair to say that Williams could have done worse than headlining “Body Awareness” as Joyce, a middle-age lesbian schoolteacher at an emotional crossroads. And if that sounds like damning “Body Awareness” with faint praise, so be it.
Regardless, Williams consistently shines in this comedy-drama that sends up feminist claptrap and political correctness, even as it wastes time addressing their various facets. Worse, playwright Annie Baker’s narrative becomes increasingly unfocused, then strains to connect all the dots and tie it up with an all-too-neat bow.
Along the way, Baker’s plot also explores whether Joyce’s unpleasant, 21-year-old son Jared (Jonathan Clem) has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of social autism. It also delves into the possibly prurient nature of Joyce’s house guest, Frank Bonitatibus (Peter Friedman), whose photos of nude women are highlighting “body awareness week” at the Vermont college where Joyce’s lover Phyllis (Mary McCann) works. And Phyllis isn’t too happy about what she perceives as a growing attraction between Joyce and Frank.
Taking place over five days, the result is a long week for all concerned, particularly audience members. And while the writing’s lack of strength is the chief stumbling block, director Karen Kohlhaas does little to inject vitality into the production.
Accordingly, it’s Williams to the rescue via expertly shaded line readings, along with those of her three co-stars. Friedman, remembered by Broadway fans as one of the Tony-nominated principals of “Ragtime,” hits all the right notes as the shutterbug with his own agenda. Meanwhile, McCann nicely exposes the inner thoughts of a woman afraid of losing what she’s come to take for granted. And as the off-putting man-child, Clem is as bracingly annoying as he’s meant to be, and then some.
So can fine acting compensate for a script’s lackings? Not really, but Williams and her colleagues at least put some energy into the otherwise lifeless “Body.”
Cast: JoBeth Williams, Mary McCann, Peter Friedman, Jonathan Clem. Playwright: Annie Baker. Director: Karen Kohlhaas. Set Designer: Walt Spangler. Costume designer: Bobby Frederick Tilley II. Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons. Sound Designer: Anthony Gabriele.