When Dysfunction Works Wonders

Two-thirds of the way through the gently hilarious new comedy “Body Awareness” at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2, Phyllis, a psychology professor at Shirley State College in Vermont, says to her life partner Joyce, “Body Awareness Week has not gone the way I planned.”

The line gets a rueful laugh as the audience recognizes that Phyllis' and Joyce's lives have spun out of control at home, while at the college, Body Awareness Week attempts to impose tidy intellectual constructs of gender, body, and self-image on the unpredictable mess that is a normal life. Were it not for the inherent sweetness of all the characters and the fragile comedy playwright Annie Baker draws from the situations, this would be a more searing social commentary.

Still, we get the point, and it's an important one. Baker unflinchingly looks at the structures that ostensibly enlightened people place around sex, language, disability, and gender awareness and shows that for all the earnestness, there are fundamental realities of the human experience that cannot be swept away by changing the language about them.

“Body Awareness” and “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang” deliver distinct but inspiring evenings

We discover that not all men who take photos of nude women are misogynists, that changing the names we call things does not alter the reality – or the emotional impact on those affected – and much more. Ultimately for all the “right thinking” and “right speaking,” we cannot avoid the fact that we are mammals, subject to biological imperatives, which we do not control.

Baker has all kinds of comic gems filtered throughout the script, and one has to listen closely not to miss them, such as Phyllis' installation of a “domestic violence quilt” as part of the Body Awareness program. Baker, though, is never mean or even ironic, and the characters are all attractive and well-meaning. It's why we can laugh at ourselves through them.

Mary McCann does a wonderful job as Phyllis. The understated way her ideological constructs collide with her life is quite moving.

JoBeth Williams is equally terrific as Joyce. Baker writes feelingly of the little, and largely unintended, slights that are part of a long-term relationship, and as we watch Joyce manage her desire to be free in her own body – by posing nude for visiting artist Frank who uses photography to “liberate” women from their limiting body images – and tend to her son Jared, who may or may not have Asperger syndrome (a maladaptive disorder related to autism), Williams is in full command of the meltdown.

Peter Friedman does a fine job as Frank, a man who has struggled to maintain his integrity in a world that is generally gunning for him because he is a white male.

Jonathan Clem, however, is a revelation as Jared. His struggle not to be branded by his two mommies and alienated from his culture and his own sexuality is counterpoised with a directness that slices through the PC nature of much of the talk of the older adults. This is not a new convention; the outsider is always able to tell truths that would be unspeakable by others, from the Elizabethan “allowed fool” to John Stewart, the outsider who can speak directly without fear of retribution.

It's fascinating that Baker implies this is only possible today if one has a psychological disorder. In fact, the desire of Phyllis and Joyce to so box Jared is a way they try to avoid confronting their own artificial constructs. Clem is simply marvelous, with an ability to let thoughts and feelings pass through his face while maintaining a disquieting external placidity. (Though it's not resolved, I'm guessing Jared doesn't have the disorder because he looks everyone he speaks to directly in the eyes, which people with Asperger do not. Not that it matters to the play.)

In the end, this endearing play, directed with great care by Karen Kohlhaas, beautifully explicates the uniquely human struggle to apply order to the chaos and morass of dysfunction that is our species' unvarnished reality. Sadly, no matter how hard we try, all we can do is the best we can, and that, for all the inherent frustration it creates, is deeply touching.

Dysfunction of a very different sort is at the center of “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang,” a “pirate puppet rock odyssey,” now at Ars Nova. An explosion of manic genius, this completely twisted – in the most jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring way – piece combines puppetry, a spectacular hard rock score, and a stellar level of wit to create one of the freshest and most original pieces I've seen in ages.

The show was created by Raja Azar and Nick Jones, who fronts the band and provides the voice of the gay, alcoholic, and maniacal Captain Clamp, a deliciously grotesque puppet pirate leading his men on the quest to find Party Island. “Jollyship,” a high intensity show, intersperses bursts of demented narrative about Clamp, his pirate band, a cabin boy he loved and lost, and his quest for spiritual enlightenment with a talking crab, with original and complex rock and songs that comment on the action.

My favorites were “Pack Light for Paradise” and the theme song “Party Island,” though there isn't a clunker in the bunch. Moreover, Jones, an incandescent and galvanizing performer, Azar, and their energetic company perform with precision and clarity that makes every word intelligible and as directed by Sam Gold, creates a ripping good time.

The combination of raw talent, fierce intelligence, and totally whacked out storytelling, make this a show that cries out for an extended run. Hooray for Ars Nova for finding and developing this. Get in on the party, even if you have to stow away.

BODY AWARENESS | Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St. | Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat, 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. through Jun. 22 | $45; 212-279-4200

JOLLYSHIP THE WHIZ-BANG| Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St. | Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. through Jun. 28 | $25; 212-868-4444

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