Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Body of Water

Grade: B-

By Lee Blessing, Directed by Maria Mileaf. Primary Stages at 59E59. (CLOSED)

(Critic-O-Metered by Isaac Butler)

Is A Body of Water an enigmatic mediation on memory, identity and the truth or a frustrating and irritatingly vague play that doesn't know what it is? That is the central question being duked out across the various reviews for the new play by Lee Blessing, which won the Steinberg award in 2005 for its Guthrie production. There's also an odd number of factual mistakes in this batch of reviews. The Associated Press review says the play is produced by Playwrights Horizons when it is in fact produced by Primary Stages. The CurtainUp review is littered with errors. It misspells the names Ionesco and Estragon and mentions the "Japanese play" Rashomon even though the various s stage versions (adapted from the legendary Japanese film which is itself an adaptation of Japanese short stories) were produced and adapted by Western companies.

Associated Press A-

(Peter Santilli) This cat-and-mouse game at times becomes nearly as frustrating for the audience as it appears to be for the memory-challenged characters. But Blessing somehow uses the uncertainty to build suspense and draw us in. He also uses it to pose questions without imposing answers. With so much left open to interpretation, this experimental piece resounds long after it ends, an indicator of worthwhile theater.

Variety B+

(Sam Thielman)"A Body of Water," [is[ 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.

Time Out B+
(Adam Feldman) Perhaps unavoidably, and despite Blessing's inventiveness, the permutations of the couple's identity crisis grow slightly repetitious, but director Maria Mileaf draws compelling work from her actors. Cristofer moves fluidly from bulldog to horn dog to hangdog; Lahti conveys a believable mix of curiosity and inchoate inhibitions. Together they develop into a portrait of life in limbo: Neither sinking nor swimming, but treading water tirelessly.

Village Voice B+
(Rob Weinert-Kendt) As played by Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer, this odd couple stokes a lovely, blue-flamed heat that suggests a well-worn familiarity--a shared muscle memory that belies their conscious forgetfulness. But if their puzzling out their predicament has a teasing, romantic-comedy playfulness, both actors also tune into a rising hum of hurt and worry that never quite subsides...Though on some level this remains a playwriting exercise, it's executed with craft and feeling, and sensitively directed by Maria Mileaf. At bottom, A Body of Water makes a bracing and uniquely theatrical dive into the murk of identity and memory.

Talkin Broadway B+

(Matthew Murray) 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.

New York Daily News B

(Joe Dziemianowicz) Staged by Maria Mileaf for Primary Stages, the production boasts a smooth flow, consistent tone and handsome design. A rainstorm seems so real you'll want to open an umbrella.... Lahti, onstage after a 15-year gap, and Cristofer ("The Shadow Box") bring out the couple's confusion and wariness and are quite moving as they reach out to each other. As Wren, Odeh finds a few rays of warmth for an unlikable woman whose compassion has all but gone south.

NJ Star-Ledger B

(Michael Sommers) The scarcely realistic play does not encompass the physical indignities and other strains caused by Alzheimer's. Instead, the fluidly composed A Body of Water is a Pirandello-like exploration of reality versus illusion that suggests the disease's fundamental mental dislocation. The actors give adept performances under director Maria Mileaf's guidance.

Theater News Online B-

(Sandy McDonald) Even with the excellent portrayals provided by Christine Lahti (nicely underplaying to an intimate house) and, even more so, Michael Cristofer (a waltzing partner of marvelous emotional range), the 90-minute play can be a frustrating experience not only for the amnesiacs but for onlookers - as is perhaps Blessing's and director Maria Mileaf's intent...There are no reliable answers here, but plenty of provocative questions.

CurtainUp B-

(Elyse Sommer)All these assets notwithstanding, the play has its fault lines. Granted, there are some nice bits of humor as well as the already mentioned well placed surprise scene endings. However, for a surrealistic psychological mystery like this to work, it needs to have more of an aura of menace. A Body of Water is thought provoking but not genuinely chilling. The frequent pauses instead of filling the room with tension are just pauses. Even the excellent actors can't engage us to the point of gripping the edge of our seats or clenching our fists

Back Stage C

(Adam R. Perlman) It's all very mysterious, but pretty early in the game I stopped caring what the truth was. It's obvious it won't be revealed. This isn't a tense thriller but a rumination on existential misfortune -- or at least it should be...Though the tone of Maria Mileaf's direction is understandably murky, the acting is pristine.

The New York Times C-

(Charles Isherwood) "A Body of Water," directed in a straightforward fashion by Maria Mileaf, does not deepen as it progresses toward a solution to the mystery at its heart. On the contrary, it flattens and stalls as theories keep emerging. Eventually you have to conclude that Mr. Blessing himself has not satisfactorily worked out its meaning.

TheatreMania D+

(David Finkle) Irritating... It's hard to know what the dramatist was thinking as he began the play in 2003 and forged on through a few previous versions to its current conclusion, and even harder to know what to think as one staggers from the theater, trying to figure out what has just been witnessed. Even if one believes that leaving interpretation open to audiences is a valid function of contemporary theater, in this case, it simply isn't valid.

NYPost: D+
(Frank Scheck) Under Maria Mileaf's direction, the performers deliver sympathetic characterizations, with Lahti proving particularly charming. And Neil Patel's set, with its picture windows of expansive watery views, is gorgeous to look at. But for all its determined efforts to make us think, "A Body of Water" just doesn't run very deep.

New Yorker A
The New York première of Lee Blessing’s first-class drama studies how we are connected, apart from our memories. Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer expertly ride the roller coaster of emotions of people trying to find a reference point and failing. Laura Odeh, as a young woman who arrives knowing all about the couple and yet tortures them with contradictory stories of what might have brought them to their current state, is convincingly exasperating, exasperated, and cruel.

New Yorker A 13; Associated Press A- 12; Variety B+ 11; Time Out B+ 11; Village Voice B+ 11; Talkin Broadway B+ 11; New York Daily News B 10; NJ Star-Ledger B 10; Theater News Online B- 9; CurtainUp B- 9; Back Stage C 7; NYTimes C- 6; TheaterMania D+ 5; NYPost D+ 5; TOTAL = 130 / 14 = 9.29 B-

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