BOTTOM LINE: If you enjoy a good mystery, particularly the mystery of life, you will enjoy this play! But don’t expect it to be easy...
You may, or may not, be familiar with Lee Blessing’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony nominated play A Walk in the Woods. Maybe you had the pleasure of watching your regional theatre’s production of Blessing's Nice People Dancing To Good Country Music. If you are not familiar with either of these shows then what better way to introduce yourself to Mr. Blessing’s body of work than with Primary Stages' latest production of A Body Of Water?
The play opens with two seeming strangers who appear to have lost all memory of who they are and what, when, where, why or how they got there. Sound confusing yet? Well, in the hands of any other team A Body of Water could easily be muddied and unclear. Fortunately for us however, Director Maria Mileaf lends a helping hand with expert direction, along with gutsy and heartfelt performances by the three-person cast, and a dazzlingly simple set design by Neil Patel.
I won’t say that the play is crystal clear, but I don’t think that is Mr. Blessing’s intention either. “You know this is a play with a mystery...” says Blessing (in the handy-dandy insert, loaded with great Q & A and other interesting info, provided by Primary Stages in each program). He goes on to explain that the mystery this play presents is not to be solved, but rather the point is “about learning to live inside of a mystery.” Well, Mr. Blessing, mission accomplished! The play itself is a labyrinth of truths and untruths and for my tastes it was a fun maze to not sort out, but rather just watch and see happens at the end of an hour and forty minutes.
As the performance begins, we learn that Moss (Michael Cristofer) and Avis (Christine Lahti, of Chicago Hope fame) wake up to each other as strangers, in a strange home -- albeit beautiful, with a gorgeous, giant, picture window with a view of the most serene...well... body of water and trees. Patel achieves this intriguing view, which changes with every shift of light and color (kudos to lighting designer Jeff Croiter), with a massive digital print. The cozy stage, at the 59E59 Theatre is both eerie and warm at the same time. The grandeur of the picture window, center stage, dwarfs the audience (a.k.a. fly on the wall), while making the image of water behind and around it seem somehow infinite.
This set design lends itself well to the mystery of the play. Within the first two-seconds of the play conflict presents itself when Moss and Avis stumble on stage, in delicate bathrobes, and have either a mean case of amnesia or two of the worst hangovers in the world. Cristofer and Lahti, (who joined the production late), made a charming and humorous couple on stage as their characters awkwardly attempted to figure out who they are, and why they are there. Just as it seems that Moss and Avis might have a handle on things -- enter Wren, there to undo all of the trust Moss and Avis have only barely achieved with each other, by offering the possibility of answers to be accepted blindly because, well -- if they don’t know who they are, then clearly this other stranger must be able to tell them who they are, after all she seems to know who she is -- doesn't she? The play progesses, in Groundhog Day fashion, with Moss and Avis, restarting at square one, over and over, with Wren providing varying degrees of “help” each time. While there were moments of slightly over-the-top emotions, the choices were not altogether unjustified, and certainly did not take away from the performance.
On the whole, the production is wonderful, with excellent performances by all three actors with full commitment and clarity. Being that Blessing provides such a complex script, the clear through-line, ideas, and actions guided so carefully by Mileaf are of the utmost importance. Mileaf, with a history of working together with Blessing (Going to St. Ives, which received an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, 2005), understands this playwright in a way that few do. She makes sense of his chaos so that we, the audience, can just sit back and see what happens.
Throughout the play, both Moss and Avis attempt to figure out who they are, and why they are where they are, as they get thrown off course by someone who offers them “truths,” as they wonder about the large body of water outside the window, asking each other “Do you think it’s all one?” Oh, Mr. Blessing, how very Zen of you.... If you try to “figure it out,” I’m almost positive you will leave the theatre with one eyebrow raised and an imaginary question mark floating above your head as you walk home. If, however, as you sit in that darkened theatre, you simply accept this strange story and live inside the mystery as it unfolds before you I promise, while you may go home pondering many things, that imaginary floating question mark will be replaced by a real smile.
(A Body of Water plays at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (between Madison and Park Avenues.) The show is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. It runs until November 16 with varying show dates and times, Tickets are $60. Visit primarystages.org for specific info on show dates/times and tickets.)