COLLEGE CAMPUSES are probably the only place where the difference between second- and third-wave feminism is still ardently debated. They're also where the two waves are likely to collide, a notion mined to surprisingly personal, relevant effect in Body Awareness, written by Annie Baker and running at the CoHo under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.
Corbett co-stars as Phyllis, a psychology professor charged with organizing "Body Awareness Week" on her university's campus. (It sounds much more affirming than "Eating Disorder Week," doesn't it?) But Phyllis' notion of what constitutes "body awareness" is narrow, and she's outraged by the strippers and burlesque dancers who flaunt their sexuality onstage—isn't the whole point, she argues, that women not be seen as sex objects? Phyllis believes that women want to be seen without feeling judged—not understanding that burlesque dancers and strippers want to be seen without caring if they're judged or not.
Phyllis' girlfriend Joyce (Sharonlee McLean) accidentally wanders into the hornets' nest when she befriends a male artist, Frank (Gavin Hoffman), who specializes in taking pictures of nude women. Now that must be exploitation, right? Phyllis sure thinks so, and an argument over the merits of Frank's work causes a rift between the couple.
The show is rounded out by Joyce's 21-year-old son Jared (Josh Weinstein), who lives at home and refuses to admit he probably has Asperger's syndrome. How does a kid with Asperger's relate to two lesbians grappling to update their ideas of feminism? The connection is subtle, and relates to the idea of letting someone else define how you are seen: Jared isn't concerned about his own behavior, hurtful though it may be, so much as he fears that someone else might define him as "retarded."
Body Awareness rewards this level of scrutiny; it's a focused, smart little show, full of thoughtful performances from actors who clearly understand their characters. And as a bonus to regular theatergoers, Body Awareness is the first of three plays written by Annie Baker and set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont; the second Shirley show, Circle Mirror Transformation, was performed at Artists Rep last season, and the third play in the trilogy, The Aliens, will be staged by Third Rail later this season. While this sort of synchronicity is par for the course when producing Chekhov or Shakespeare, it's exciting to see such a surge of support for a contemporary female playwright.