A Body of Water
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
October 10, 2008
The gorgeous, well-appointed living room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over a placid body of water suggests that Lee Blessing's A Body of Water might be a naturalistic drama about an angst-ridden upper middle class family whose deep dark secrets will soon be revealed as they gather for a weekend at their summer house. That expectation is quickly dispelled, however, as lights rise on a man and woman wearing bathrobes who have mysteriously just awakened in bed together, but have no idea who they are, where they are, and how they got there in this esoteric and often stagnant new drama that examines what reality would be like and who we would be without our memories.
The man and woman continue to desperately search their memories for clues as to their identities, eventually even opening their robes to one another to see if the familiarity of their equipment might arouse a dormant recollection. No such luck. As the two grow increasingly exasperated, an unfamiliar young woman enters the house, exchanges some chit-chat, and exits to the kitchen to bring them their breakfast. Who is this person? Is she their daughter? Is this her house? The man and woman try to subtly figure out what's going on, but eventually admit to the young woman they don't know who they are, who she is, and how they got there, and hope she can provide them with answers. The young woman, whose name turns out to be Wren, seems from the get-go to be rather exasperated by the man and woman, who we soon learn are named Moss and Avis. Wren at first sparingly doles out splintered information, complaining to Moss and Avis that she's told them all of this countless times before, cluing them into who she is, who they are, and informing them of the horrifying act that they have been accused of committing that Wren doesn't believe for a second that they don't remember.
At its heart, A Body of Water is essentially an existential play wrapped up in a realistic world that is fraught with symbolic cues. From the nature-inspired names of the characters, to the chandelier made of upside-down light bulbs emphasizing how minds have been turned upside-down, to the blues and greens that permeate the costumes, sets, and lighting, to the emblematic Lethe-like body of water that we are constantly reminded surrounds them, a sense of deeper meaning is ever-present. The substance of the play, however, while inspired by a unique premise that raises some tantalizing questions, for the most part feels as though it stuck in a bog where it either sits inert or paddles in tedious circles.
Christine Lahti as Avis and Michael Cristofer as Moss at first struggle to find the right rhythm with one another and the stilted conversational language, but eventually hit a lovely stride in the more emotionally evolved scenes. Laura Odeh as Wren has the tough job of playing a dubious character who for the most part is not very likable. On the one hand, one can understand Wren's behavior, as she has been enduring an unpleasant situation with regard to Moss and Avis for apparently a very long time, a situation that will likely never change and that will influence her life for years to come. However, the acerbic way in which Wren is written and the manipulative and deceptive acts she undertakes make it very hard to empathize with her. Were there some sort of point of reference as to what Wren was like in the past, or some small sense of how this unfortunate scenario that she must deal with changes her by the end of the play, she would then feel like a relatable and more fully-realized character, as opposed to just a disingenuous and unsympathetic foil.
The design work is all top-notch. Neil Patel's grand living room and surrounding greenery make you green with envy, wishing you could be a guest in his space for 90 days rather than just 90 minutes. Jeff Croiter's impressionistic lighting slathers on appropriate shades of mood, and costume designer Candice Donnelly rounds out the talented trio, smartly incorporating the thematic colors and providing each character with a specific and individual style. Director Maria Mileaf helms the production for the most part with a cerebral distance and self-conscious hand. She tends to quash the characters' emotional truth, having the actors speed through their lines with one another rather than encouraging them to take an extra beat to process and individualize them.
There are thought-provoking ideas bubbling beneath and occasionally breaking through the surface in A Body of Water. Wading between realism and the absurd also infuses the play with a unique theatricality. However, as it stands, the play comes across as if it's still trying to find itself and, as a result, A Body of Water feels like it's treading water.