"Body Awareness" at Empire Stage

David R. Gordon, Janet Weakley, Merry Jo Cortada and Clay Cartland star in Island City Stage's production of "Body Awareness" at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale. (Andy Rogow / March 14, 2013)

"Body Awareness" is a strange little comedy, and a smart one at that. It defies easy categorization or even deciphering.

Produced by Island City Stage and Empire Stage, the play by Annie Baker is getting its South Florida premiere at the cozy Empire Stage space in Fort Lauderdale. And that is perfect, for the small-scale production with four actors is so delicate, so immediate and such a delightfully twisted treat that its power — whatever that may be — would diffuse on a larger stage.

As is, it's all right there in the title … even if the play still has a way of sneaking up on you.

Preferring to call her eating disorder symposium "Body Awareness Week," psychology professor Phyllis (a flinty Merry Jo Cortada) lives in crunchy domestic bliss in a small college town with her partner, Joyce (Janet Weakley, soft and plushy), a high school humanities teacher. They share a home with Joyce's 21-year-old son, Jared (Clay Cartland, the comedic nucleus of the cast), who may have Asperger's syndrome. Things are thrown into a tizzy when Joyce lends a spare bedroom to a symposium guest artist, a photographer named Frank (David R. Gordon, butch and self-possessed).


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That Frank photographs nude women sends Phyllis into sniper mode. And what she perceives as a flirtation with Joyce only cements her distaste for Frank, who seems blissfully unaware or simply uninterested in her low opinion of him.

You can see the crash coming from a mile away. But when it does - sparked by Jared's asking Frank for dating advice - the conflagration is nothing like you thought it would be.

All the actors are accessible and fun, as you keep up with their agendas and follow them around the stage, sometimes even in the aisles, as scenes manage to read both subtle and big, with a certain cinematic quality. (Is it possible that director Michael Leeds gives us the equivalent of close-up with his blocking?)

Personally, I just couldn't take my eyes off Weakley. Her face can barely contain the pressure cooker within: thrashing, bustling, flapping and sputtering as she tries to placate everyone. But her acting is so masterful you can't see the seams of the emotional quilt she is sewing.

Who knows what the takeaway will be? The playwright seems to be making some statement about how even though Jared blurts hurtful things because his Asperger's deadens his empathy, the others also casually wound each other with words, as jealousy and political correctness get the better of them. Then, there is the what-is-the-role-of-the-artist vibe bubbling throughout, and even some questions about intellectualism not allowing the rubber of feminism to meet the road of real life.

It's a lot, especially in 90 minutes with no intermission. But "Body Awareness" is mesmerizing, from the first soft-pedaled joke to the final lovely image.

IF YOU GO

When: Through April 7; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. March 21, March 28 and April 4

Where: Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale

Cost: $30

Contact: 954-678-1496 or IslandCityStage.org