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A CurtainUp Review
A Body of Water

Why are we like this? I don't want to be like this.—Avis.

We all have things we'd rather not be. No point dwelling on it. We simply adjust, that's all.— Wren
Body of Water
Christine Lahti as Avis and Michael Cristofer as Moss in Body of Water (Photo: James Leynse)
Lee Blessing has come up with an interesting premise: An attractive fifty-ish couple, after waking up in the same bed, are having coffee in the living room facing spectacular views of hills and a lake. Looks idyllic? Sure. The trouble is, that neither the man or the woman know who they are and how they got here. They don't know their names, whether or not they're married or whose house this is.

We're as puzzled as the couple on stage. Are they caught in some sort of futuristic time warp? Are they suffering from Alzheimer's? Is Blessing setting us up for a fantasy comedy, shades of Blithe Spirit, or is this country house a naturalistic variation of Beckett's barren landscape, with the coffee-sipping couple trapped in a surreal, never ending no man's land like Vladimir and Estragen in Waiting for Godot?

The play unspools in the course of three days and five scenes during which we learn a lot about these people. But there's no neat, all questions answered climax. The only thing we can be reasonably certain about is that her name is Avis and his Moss and that Blessing seems to be using their amnesia to make us think about what makes us tick and how memory affects how we relate to each other and the way we go from day to day.

The mystery about who's who and what it all might mean mean unravels or, to be more precise, deepens, with the arrival of a third character — a young woman named Wren who could be their daughter, the lawyer defending them against accusations that they've murdered their daughter, or their long time caretaker. This surreal situation will remind those familiar with Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs in which an old couple on an island surrounded by water cling to differing recollections of their past; the man, not trusting his own memory, hires an orator whose message turns out to be as unreliable as theirs. In A Body of Water, Wren is an uninvited memory nudger. She presents various scenarios for why Avis and Moss are trapped in their state of living without memory, partially reenacted by Moss (Michael Cristofer), Avis (Christine Lahti) and Wren (Laura Odeh). These replays of possible causes for the present situation will also brings to mind the Japanese play, whose title, Rashomon, has become a common expression for conflicting stories, none of which is definitively correct.

Blessing, a prolific and versatile playwright is perhaps best known for political plays like A Walk In the Woods and Two Rooms. However, this isn't his first venture into abstract territory. Whores reviewed at Curtainup (see link at end of review) also ventured into Ionescor's tragi-comic world. Our reviewer wasn't overwhelmed with enthusiasm for Blessing in this abstract mode and A Body of Water, despite considerable assets, fails to make Blessing's way with surrealistic mystery plays an unmitigated blessing.

To start with (forgive the irresistible wordp lay) the blessings of the Primary Stages New York premiere.
As Avis and Moss, Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer hit all the right emotional notes, capturing their confusion and fear but also making the most of the comic aspects of their situation, especially the delicate investigation of their sexual connection. The sense of compatibility they project makes it easy to add their being a long married c to the few facts you can accept with certainty. Laura Odeh, who has the difficult task of playing an unsympathetic character, is almost too successful in conveying the impatience of the young woman whose identity is as puzzling as Avis and Moss's. There are time when she is so shrill that you're glad when she leaves the stage.

Maria Mileaf, who also directed Blessing's last play for Primary Stages, Going to St. Ives, has, with the help of her designers, handled the small playing area with finesse, enveloping the modestly furnished lakeside home with large images of the hills and lake. Mileaf's handling of the scene ending surprises is particularly effective. Her vision for the play's staging is well supported by Neil Patel's scenic design, Jeff Croiter's time shifting lighting and Bart Fassbender's incidental music.
All these assets notwithstanding, the play has its fault lines. Granted, there are some nice bits of humor as well as the already mentioned well placed surprise scene endings. However, for a surrealistic psychological mystery like this to work, it needs to have more of an aura of menace. A Body of Water is thought provoking but not genuinely chilling. The frequent pauses instead of filling the room with tension are just pauses. Even the excellent actors can't engage us to the point of gripping the edge of our seats or clenching our fists.

Having produced a Metaphors Dictionary I'm a certified admirer of well chosen tropes. However, I found the flight imagery (flight from reality, fact, and other life truths) suggested by the bird-related names a case of metaphoric overkill (Besides Avis, which means bird in Latin, and Wren, there's a maybe daughter named Robin).

While I don't mind a play that makes me work instead of dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's, I felt that A Body of Water messed around with my head a bit too much for the sake of creating a clever puzzle. Still, its unanswered questions did linger in my mind.

Links to reviews of other Lee Blessing plays reviewed at Curtainup.
Black Sheep
Down the Road
Eleemosynary/Blessing, Lee
Fortinbras/ Lee Blessing
Going to St. Ive
Thief River
Two Roomse

by Lee Blessing
directed by Maria Mileaf
Cast: Michal Cristofer (Moss), Christine Lahti (Avis), Laura Odeh (Wren)
Set: Neil Patel
Costumes: , Candice Donnelly
Lights: Jeff Croiter
Original music and sound design: Bart Fasbender
Stage Manager: Larry Ash
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). (212) 279-4200
From 9/30/08; opening 10/14/08; closing 11/09/08.
Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. with Wednesday matinees at 2:00 p.m. on October 22nd & 29th , and November 5th.
Tickets $60 each with a specially priced $20 ticket available to patrons 35 and under.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 10/10/08
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