Monday, February 6, 2012

Women on the Verge

In 1944, Hallmark Cards adopted its marketing slogan: "When you care enough to send the very best." Often, whether receiving a lame card or gift, someone will try to mitigate the situation by saying "That's okay, it's the thought that counts."

But for many people in relationships, it's often a lack of thought on the part of their spouse or partner that can lead to a growing sense of betrayal. An unexpected attack or threat to one's vulnerability, coupled with a growing awareness of another person's faults, can launch a growing tally of tiny paper cuts that slowly kill a relationship.

If, like Michelle Obama, you have a healthy sense of perspective, you learn to cope with your spouse's weak points. In this clip from a recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the First Lady talks about the realities of living with President Barack Obama.

I have always treasured this clip of Mary Martin and Robert Preston performing "Nobody's Perfect" from the 1966 Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt musical, "I Do! I Do!"

While it's easy for couples to knowingly take aim at each other's weak points, something peculiar happens when a couple consists of two people who are in the same profession. What might not have been perceived as a dig or insult by the person who delivered it can be taken to heart quite deeply by the person on the receiving end of a casual assumption. Two plays currently receiving their Bay area premieres find this inner conflict at the core of their characters' struggle to maintain their identities as individuals and as professionals.

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Early into Annie Baker's new play, Body Awareness, Phyllis (Amy Resnick) makes an offhand remark to her lesbian partner, Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen), which provokes an unexpectedly tense response. Without meaning to sound condescending, Phyllis (who is a Professor of Feminist Psychology at Vermont's Shirley State College) tells her lover that only academics are granted a particular kind of status in the educational landscape. When Joyce protests that she, too, considers herself to be an academic, Phyllis matter-of-factly explains that a person has to have a Ph.D. and publish articles in order to be taken seriously as an academic whereas Joyce teaches social studies in a public high school. Ouch!

But that's not the only problem confronting the couple.

Phyllis (Amy Resnick) and Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) are a stressed-out
lesbian couple in Body Awareness (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Phyllis is in the midst of presenting a program called "Body Awareness Week" that includes the requisite workshop on eating disorders as well as performances by a dance troupe of Palestinian  refugee children. Although she does not hate men, she is deeply suspicious of male photographers who shoot female nudes through what feminists call the "straight white male gaze." When the visiting artist arbitrarily assigned by the college to stay with Phyllis and Joyce turns out to be none other than the photographer whose pictures of nude women are on display, Phyllis becomes increasingly hostile and defensive.
  • Joyce (who was once married and has a grown son) is the more sensitive half of the couple. Curious about the photographic exhibition and the questions it raises about her own body image, she is eager to converse with a male artist who might be able to provide some fatherly advice for her troubled 21-year-old son.
  • Frank Bonitatibus (Howard Swain) is the photographer visiting Shirley State College who is being hosted by Phyllis and Joyce. Needless to say, he has been greeted with varying levels of suspicion, curiosity, and dread.
  • Jared (Patrick Russell) is Joyce's 21-year-old son who worships the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), has a passion for etymology, and proudly considers himself to be an autodidact. Like many young people with Asperger's syndrome, he lacks empathy and can barely hold down a job because of his severe lack of social skills and intolerance of stupid people. Nevertheless, Jared knows how to fight back against his parents, boasting that if he has already managed to read Crime and Punishment and Joyce has not, then by simple logic his mother must be an idiot.

Jared (Patrick Russell) argues with Phyllis (Amy Resnick) in
Body Awareness (Photo by: David Allen)

As Baker's play unfolds, tensions continue to mount.
  • Phyllis's staunch feminism keeps getting undermined by reality as Joyce reacts to Frank as a human being (rather than a male oppressor) and becomes increasingly interested in his work.
  • Jared, who uses his electric toothbrush as the adult equivalent of an infant's pacifier, has decided to become a lexicographer in order to impress girls and make them think he's desirable. After quitting his job at McDonald's, he turns to Frank for the kind of fatherly advice about sex and dating that he obviously can't get from his two lesbian mothers. Alas, the best Frank can suggest is to become a master at cunnilingus.
  • After being invited to attend Phyllis's big speech at the climax of Body Awareness Week, Joyce instead uses that time to pose for Frank. Not having Joyce in the audience for moral support is a crushing defeat for Phyllis, who is a rabid control freak.
  • When Phyllis makes a grand gesture of writing a check to pay for Frank's photograph, she is flabbergasted by Joyce's declaration that one of the reasons she decided to pose for Frank was so she could have something in her life that Phyllis didn't own.
Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) poses for Frank (Howard Swain)
in Body Awareness (Photo by: David Allen)

All of these roiling passions must suddenly be put on hold when Jared does something dangerously stupid that requires support and guidance from both of his parents. Howard Swain plays the straight man to everyone else's hysterical outbursts (Frank is obviously not the kind of person who should be giving much advice to anyone).

Joy Carlin has directed Body Awareness with a keen sensitivity to the kinds of remarks that can blow up in one's face and quickly escalate a simple misunderstanding to the point where two people might seem close to ending a relationship.  She also does a beautiful job of balancing Jared's antisocial behavior with his emotional and psychological vulnerability.

While Amy Resnick and Jeri Lynn Cohen do a solid job of portraying two lesbians with varying degrees of antipathy toward men, it is Patrick Russell whose raging identity crisis as the angry and confused Jared lies at the core of the Baker's play. Russell's performance is as powerful and impressive as his work last year in the Shotgun Players' world premiere of Care of Trees by E. Hunter Spreen.  This is an actor to watch.

Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) and her son Jared (Patrick Russell) get
into an argument in Body Awareness (Photo by: David Allen)

I'm always amazed at how cleverly set designers utilize the tiny performing space at the Aurora Theatre Company. The scenery and lighting designed by Kent Dorsey for this production give the auditorium its warmest and most nurturing feeling in recent years.

Performances of Body Awareness continue through March 4 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). This very funny and deeply poignant dramedy is not just for politically correct lesbians.

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Over at the Theatre at Children's Creativity MuseumAmerican Conservatory Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Higher, a new play by its artistic director, Carey Perloff that focuses on two architects in love who end up competing for the same gig. Directed by Mark Rucker on a simple yet stunningly effective unit set designed by Erik Flatmo, Perloff's play revolves around the following characters:
  • Michael Friedman (Andrew Polk) is a very aggressive architectural celebrity, the kind of workaholic who is constantly jetting around to oversee projects in Berlin, Dubai, and other major cities. Having sworn off designing memorials, he is eager to start a new phase of his career. Divorced from his previous wife, he has been in a romantic relationship with a talented female architect which they often consummate in hotel rooms during his international stopovers.
  • Isaac Friedman (Ben Kahre) is Michael's gay son who, in addition to resenting his father's continual absenteeism from important moments in his life, has turned to his religion and his loving French Canadian boyfriend (a restaurant chef) for emotional support.
Concetta Tomei as Valerie Rifkind in Higher
Photo by: Kevin Berne
  • Valerie Rifkind (Concetta Tomei) is a predatory New York socialite whose fat husband was blown to bits during a terrorist attack in Israel. Because she comes from the wealthy Freiburg family (whose family foundation donated the money that paid for the architectural designs of many famous buildings), she is not someone who takes "no" for an answer. Valerie is now heading a committee to oversee the architectural competition to design an appropriate memorial to honor the deaths of her husband and the other 22 victims of the bombing.
  • Jacob Stein (Alexander Crowther) is the son of one of the Israeli bombing victims and a powerful presence on Valerie's committee.
  • Erica Constantine (René Augesen) is the attractive female architect who has entered Valerie's competition. A trifle self-conscious about the fact that female architects rarely receive any professional recognition or awards, she desperately needs to prove to herself -- and her deceased father who one day swam off into the Mediterranean Sea and never came back -- that she can win this competition. Erica has a deeply compassionate approach to the artistic side of her work as an architect that Michael clearly lacks. However, because she is currently involved in a romantic relationship with him, she has refrained from telling Michael about her plan to enter the competition.
Elena (René Augesen) and Jacob (Alexander Crowther)
discuss life and death in Higher (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Perloff's drama neatly contrasts the way rival professionals approach their art. Elena needs to tap into her emotions and explore the proposed site for clues to how to design an appropriate memorial while Michael is so passionless and ego-driven that he never stops to question the appropriateness of his designs.

Because Michael is so wrapped up in himself (and so busy fending off Valerie's sexual advances), it never crosses his mind that Erica might be competing for the same prize. When her secret is finally revealed, it almost destroys their relationship.

Isaac Friedman (Ben Kahre) argues with his
insensitive father, Michael (Andrew Polk) in Higher
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As usual, Mark Rucker has directed with an extraordinary sensitivity to ego, motivation, and how to communicate a creative person's personal and professional frustrations to an audience.  Perloff's script is smart, touching, and abrasive in all the right places.

I was particularly taken by René Augesen's performance in a role that seems tailor-made to her emotional strengths as an actor. Alexander Crowther provided a sensitive foil as the passionate young Israeli man who misinterprets her work-related interest in his story.

Andrew Polk and Ben Khare were noticeably uncomfortable with each other as the estranged father and son.  Concetta Tomei's portrayal of Valerie ricocheted between an angry viper's sting and a wealthy cougar's insatiable lust. Performances of Higher continue through February 19 (click here to order tickets).

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