Questions abound in Lee Blessing’s overly existential play A Body of Water. Why don’t the two adults who awake together in bed recognize themselves, or each other? Who is the woman who shows up at their house with bagels? Why does her story about their identities keep changing? Which, if any of them, are true? Beyond all of the questions, though, one central mystery dominates the play: What is Blessing trying to accomplish here? The playwright creates quite a challenge from the outset of this Primary Stages show, in that none of his three characters are reliable. Though it takes a while, we learn the names of our mystery pair: Moss (Michael Cristofer) and Avis (Christine Lahti). They have no memory of anything in their lives – not the lake house in which they find neither themselves nor the reason why they may have possibly woken up naked together in bed. The two attempt many different methods of discovery, including Avis examining Moss’s genitals with a pair of kitchen tongs, all to no avail.
After an overlong period of time, a younger woman named Wren (Laura Odeh) arrives, breakfast in hand. After a lot of dancing around the subject, Moss and Avis cop to their total memory loss, of which Wren is actually well aware. She admits that she is their legal defender, assigned to them following the mysterious murder of their eleven-year-old daughter. A new question arises. Is their amnesia a cognitive reaction to this trauma, or is it selective? Wren’s job is to jog their memory enough to prove their innocence, or to determine if Moss and Avis are indeed lying to cover their tracks.
Explaining away Moss and Avis’ odd behavior as a result of retrograde amnesia makes sense, but in a disappointing, derivative way, since many writers have employed this as a theatricality. Just when we think Blessing has set the story straight, though, he throws another curveball. Wren discounts her entire first story and claims to be the couple’s grown daughter. Weary of a lifetime of dealing with two parents locked in a perpetual Groundhog Day-style daily forgetfulness, she claims to toy with them, either to make fun of her condition for her own amusement or to shock them into remembering their life.
Body is comprised of five scenes, taking place over the course of three days. In each of these scenes, Wren’s explanations of who she is and who Moss and Avis are to her change, sometimes oscillating back and forth into old explanations. Blessing’s point, if there is one lurking underneath this play, is that his audience will never really know the truth, but that makes for a hollow show. If we know nothing about all three characters, and are never told the truth about their past or their connections to each other, why is worth any investment on our part?
Blessing also backs himself into a dramatic corner with all of his characters’ exposition. True or false, all of Wren’s talking and Moss and Avis’ questions add up to a lot of redundant talking. Body cannot show, so it tells, adding up to little more than a lecture. Director Maria Mileaf finds no artful way to advance Blessing’s non-linear plot (indeed, her blocking throughout the show has these characters merely moving around in circles), and the result is a static show.
Mileaf has assembled a checkered cast to shape Blessing’s caricatures into something more human. Between the two of them, Cristofer and Lahti have won an Emmy, a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a Tony; together, the duo locates the emotional undercurrent of Body and deftly figures out a rhythm for these two characters who know each other and yet at the same time do not.
Odeh has a more difficult role. Wren, as written, suggests an impatient, petulant girl, but we do not know if this is her real personality or a persona she adopts to goad Moss and Avis, nor what her agenda is in any of the situations she describes to Moss and Avis. Odeh registers a commanding presence during her scenes, but she has been given an impossible character to realize.
What Body lacks is some kind of edge. Blessing has chosen an interesting topic – does our memory shape who we are? – but he needs to attach it to a gripping story that makes the audience care what a play’s characters remember and forget (take, for example, the film Memento, which addressed a slightly different type of amnesia in riveting form). Despite the many mysteries posed and red herrings thrown about, Body is a static show. It is hard to create food for thought when there is no meat provided.