October 22, 2008

Swept Away by "A Body of Water"

Even acclaimed playwrights can have a tough time getting their works produced in New York. Lee Blessing made a name for himself 20 years ago with A Walk in the Woods, a smart and surprisingly moving drama about Cold War diplomacy that was nominated for both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Four years later the Signature Theatre devoted its 1992-1993 season to his work. But although Blessing has written some 20 other plays over the last two decades, only five have made it across the Hudson.

Luckily for Blessing (and legions of other playwrights) there are scores of regional theaters on the other side of the river and across the country. A Body of Water, which opened at the 59E59 Theatres earlier this month, was first produced by the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and has since played at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Round House Theatre in Silver Springs, Maryland. It won the 2006 Steinberg New Play Award, which is given to the best new work produced outside of New York City. And finally, it’s arrived here. New Yorkers—or at least New York critics—seem less taken with this meditation on identity and memory but I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.

A Body of Water opens with an attractive middle-aged couple waking up in a comfortable waterfront home (designed by the increasingly ubiquitous and prodigiously talented Neil Patel) and empathetically lit by Jeff Croiter. Within minutes it’s clear that neither the man nor the woman knows where they are or even who they are. And none of this gets any clearer when a short time later, a mysterious young woman arrives who could be their caretaker, their daughter or perhaps just a manifestation of their shared insanity. The rest of the play is spent with the couple—and the audience—trying to solve the riddle of her presence and their existence.

I’m not big on absurdist drama and so this is the kind of play that usually drives me up a wall. But Michael Cristofer and Christine Lahti are so wonderfully compelling as the baffled couple that I found myself mesmerized despite my original misgivings (Click here to see a few snippets of the play and an interview they gave Broadway.com). And director Maria Mileaf injects just the right amount of suspense to create a real and unsettling sense of existential menace. It isn’t all grim; in fact, there’s a good deal of humor. But I won’t be able to tell you the solution to the puzzle Blessing sets up because I don’t really know what that answer is. Even he may not know. The playwright admits in the Primary Stages newsletter that “the final scene of the play has been changed every time the play has been done.”

That lack of resolution bothers some people. The man who shared an elevator ride with my friend Ann and me after the show declared the play “the worst thing I ever saw...it didn’t go anyplace.” Many critics agreed and more than one complained that the show simply “tread water” during its 90-minute running time. I know what they mean but I'm swimming against the tide on this one. I love how Blessing’s play literally so deftly set the stage for me to ruminate on the big questions. You know. The ones about life and death and love and redemption. There are, of course, no easy answers for them and we all must come to our own conclusions. A Body of Water runs through Nov. 16 so there’s time for you to go and draw your own.

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