Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, a rueful domestic comedy, includes mention of a debate among lexicographers: prescriptivism versus descriptivism. Prescriptivists believe that dictionaries ought to promote strict definitions for word usage, while descriptivists argue, as one of Baker’s characters notes, that “there shouldn’t be any editorial judgment”—that “a dictionary should just record what people are saying and writing in the real world. . . . A descriptivist strives to be a Totally Neutral Observer.
“The descriptivists may be pleased to learn that they have a playwright in their ranks. In Body Awareness, presented by the Atlantic Theater, Baker takes great pains to avoid judging her characters. An ideology-bound psychology professor, her vulnerable girlfriend, the girlfriend’s possibly autistic son, and the male photographer of naked women who comes to stay with them—all are treated with a generous measure of empathy. Baker, herself the child of a psychology professor, sets the play during Body Awareness Week (formerly known as Eating Disorder Awareness Week) at a small Vermont college. The week’s activities and the arrival of the visiting artist force the family to re-examine their relationships and self-conceptions.
Making her Off-Broadway premiere, Baker establishes herself as a smart and compassionate playwright. That compassion is both a benefit and detriment. Baker seems almost shy around her characters, sometimes unwilling to exploit their foibles for just a bit more comedy or steer them toward more heated confrontation. (Not nice, but sometimes dramatically necessary.) I suppose those criticisms make me a prescriptivist. Regardless, perhaps Baker and I can agree that she’s made a tender and affecting debut.