The naked pictures push everyone’s buttons. For one viewer, they’re an invitation to disrobe. For another, they provoke feelings of outrage. And the effect they have on a young man is nearly catastrophic.
In “Body Awareness,” the audience never sees the pictures in question. But their arrival in Annie Baker’s comedy, now making its Bay Area premiere in a seriously funny Aurora Theatre Company production, changes one family for good.
Most of the play takes place in the home of Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) and her partner Phyllis (Amy Resnick), who live in the small town of Shirley, Vt. It’s Body Awareness Week in Shirley, and Phyllis, a feminist professor at the local state college, is coordinating the event.
Joyce has her hands full with her 21-year-old son, Jared (Patrick Russell), who is still living at home, obsessively reading the Oxford English Dictionary (“I’m an auto-didact”) and clutching a frayed electric toothbrush like a security blanket.
But she agrees to host one of the visiting artists Phyllis has invited to the college. It turns out to be Frank (Howard Swain), a photographer who specializes in images of naked women.
The show alternates between satirical scenes of Phyllis at the college, nervously moderating events designed to foster women’s self-acceptance, and domestic tableaux featuring Jared and his two moms.
Joyce and Phyllis argue about him — does he have Asperger’s syndrome, or is he merely lazy and hostile? But the family hits a new level of dysfunction when Joyce offers to pose for Frank. For Phyllis, that’s a relationship deal-breaker.
Director Joy Carlin stages the 90-minute production efficiently on Kent Dorsey’s two-level set, which encompasses the school and home environments. And the actors, in contemporary costumes by Christine Dougherty, give sharp performances.
Cohen’s Joyce illuminates the strain of conflicting desires — to care for her son, conform to Phyllis’ expectations and reveal herself to Frank’s “male gaze.”
Resnick, a consistently vibrant stage presence, invests Phyllis with wary intelligence. Russell is an endearing Jared, and Swain’s Frank hits just the right note of smarmy assurance.
“Body Awareness,” presented as part of Aurora’s Global Age Project, doesn’t develop its themes to the fullest. But Baker lets them simmer in agreeably entertaining fashion. In the end, the play works its way under the skin, even as it makes you laugh.
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 4
Tickets: $30 to $48
Contact: (510) 843-4822; www.auroratheatre.org