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A Body of Water

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Cristofer and Christine Lahti.
Photo by James Leynse

Go ahead, pick a villain. Is it the couple who maybe - maybe - murdered their daughter and have conveniently lost their memories of the crime and its cover-up? Or is it the woman tending to them, who maybe - maybe - is putting them through hell every day because she knows the next day they'll have forgotten all about it? Which, to you, is more wicked?

Lee Blessing's unsettlingly beautiful play A Body of Water doesn't demand that you choose between potential evils - at least not overtly. But as these different stories and others unfurl, unravel, and undulate into obsolescence, each new variation inspiring additional questions but providing no tangible answers, you'll be hard pressed not to sympathize with either suffering parents or suffering daughter. Assuming, that is, you even believe those are the correct labels for these three people - there's as much reason to believe they are as aren't.

While Maria Mileaf's new production of the play at Primary Stages is highly uneven, the gripping nature of its mysteries remains irresistible for the full 95-minute running time. One of the show's most distinctive characteristics is that its opening scene, in which a late-middle-age man (Michael Cristofer) and woman (Christine Lahti) awake naked in a secluded country house with no recollection of who they are or how they got there, is also its least involving. It's an appetizer suggesting the fluid nature of identity, but only one that leads to a much more fulfilling feast at which truth's eternal mutability becomes the guest of honor.

For when Wren (Laura Odeh) arrives, bearing bagels and an anxious cynicism, who they are immediately becomes less important than who they were. Wren's initial story is that of the murder: She's one of their defense counsel, trying to compel them to remember enough to claim innocence - despite mounting evidence, it's a plausible success strategy - and armed with enough documents and gruesome photographs of the crime (the girl's skull was bashed in and the body dumped in the frozen lake surrounding the cottage, only to be discovered with the spring thaw) to lend credence to her claims.

Laura Odeh, Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer.
Photo by James Leynse

As the couple starts adding up more of the pieces, a different story begins to emerge. Wren is apparently no longer the couple's lawyer, but their daughter, doing everything she can to shock them into recalling anything they can about her and the life they have mentally abandoned. Wren knows them both so well, and looks so much like them, this version of events is equally believable. Of course, there are also more than enough reasons for the older man and woman to believe that this, too, is merely another lie of the dozens that seem to orbit Wren.

Blessing's constant tweaking of knowingness, on the part of all three characters as well as the audience, requires your active participation in constructing and deconstructing the play's tangled plot. His injection of unusual poetry into what might otherwise be crushingly prosaic proceedings further captures your interest: Wren's explanation of her namesake bird, saying they're "perching birds - they like to keep above you" is appropriately portentous; other statements, such as Wren's "Nobody could care for you as long as I have and not torture you a little," are unquestionably real and crisp.

Mileaf's staging, however, tends toward the soggy. Loaded with pregnant pauses and meaningful looks, it weighs down what should be a buoyant exploration of uncertainty. The overall atmosphere becomes a too-literal evocation of Neil Patel's placid-meets-verdant living-room set, which blends two- and three-dimensional outlooks of life at jagged angles, keeping reality always just outside your field of vision. It's a charmingly restful locale, but it needs to be charged with restlessness that underscores everyone's urgency - instead, it feels like everyone is more interested in pursuing a vacation than lasting enlightenment.

Cristofer has built his portrayal on a grogginess of spirit and Lahti hers on a faded-businesswoman mien that contribute to a volatile chemistry between the two of them, but not to a consistent energy fueling the play as a whole. Odeh comes closer, modulating her anger, desperation, and pity often enough that you can never take her character for granted. But her Wren is never quite invested enough in her crusade to make all her minuscule cruelties palatable; while this might just be Odeh's interpretation, it plays more as the actress's confusion with what is, admittedly, a difficult and regularly rearranging role.

But nothing about this play is easy - and that's its greatest strength. It simultaneously weaves the terrors of losing your mind and losing your freedom into a cozy package that horrifies and tantalizes with its simplicity. Either of these things, Blessing warns with each new iteration of the couple's plight, could happen to you. By the end of the play you feel like they have, even though you might not be entirely sure what you've been through or who is responsible. By design, that's the scariest - and most rewarding - part of all about A Body of Water.

A Body of Water
Through November 9
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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