Good morning, what’s your name? That’s the first of many questions Lee Blessing’s befuddled couple have to answer in “A Body of Water,” a cleverly sentimental brainbender about a pair of amnesiacs who might be better off without their memories. It’s an interesting departure for Blessing, whose plays frequently sport a rigorous structure and a topical grounding. Unmoored from both, “A Body of Water” sails on a tide of half-truths and maddening reversals, deftly navigating between absolutism on one side and abstraction on the other. And where it ends up, interestingly, is open to interpretation.
Helmer Maria Mileaf gives the proceedings an easy naturalism that quickly escalates into something between fear and wonder — Moss (Michael Cristofer) and Avis (Christine Lahti) have woken up next to each other, naked, touching, in a bed they don’t recognize, each finding the other a friendly, tentative stranger. Thus wrong footed, they try to figure out who and where they are, taking time to stop and enjoy the view.
Moss and Avis are in a beautiful room — smartly realized by Neil Patel, whose bare-bulb chandelier provides Mileaf (his wife) with an amusing visual metaphor for the play’s ideas. They have clothes and comfortable surroundings, and it’s a nice day outside. The only thing that worries them is the body of water surrounding the house — is it all the same river, or lake, or ocean? Are they on an island?
In comes Wren (a pricelessly mean Laura Odeh), the snake in the garden: She has stories to tell them, some of which may be lies. Is she their daughter? Their lawyer? Their captor?
This is almost exactly the point in the play when audiences familiar with Blessing’s more literal work will start to worry. The uncertainty here is intriguing enough that the play’s tinge of sentiment seems like a threat — is the playwright going to start spraying emotion all over his delicately balanced drama? Happily, no, or rather, not exactly.
Wren has a whole bunch of conflicting tales about what made Moss and Avis who they are. Some ring truer than others (one late-breaking story rings a little too true, and may upset the play’s tone less with some judicious trimming). But then, we’ve established that this girl is a liar. Thus, the sum of the play’s parts add up to something more diffuse than a simple domestic drama and more certain than an amnesiac fever dream.
If you’re one of those people who has to have everything spelled out for you, you can go home satisfied, but if you prize the questions above the answers, you’re likely to feel validated, too.
Blessing’s script is unlikely to ruffle any feathers, but the central insights about intimacy are sneakily disturbing. The couple’s rude awakening is an everyday occurrence (maybe), followed by an exploration of the Edenic world around them (possibly) that vanishes into the haze of forgetfulness as soon as they go to bed together in the evening, again for the first time (perhaps). Is the love that blossoms every day between Moss and Avis (convincingly played, especially by Lahti) the real thing, or is it simply better living through that initial chemistry?
It’s all a question of perspective. Are they living in a Sisyphean torture chamber, or are they in a state of unspoiled grace? Or both? Blessing’s answer is a theatrical Mobius strip, an endless tape loop of intriguing questions and the half-truths that may be their only answers.