Saturday, October 11, 2008

Lee Blessing: "A Body of Water" and "Two Rooms"

Lee Blessing's latest work, A Body of Water, focuses on the loss of memory but the retention of body, and what that means for a relationship; a revival of his older play, Two Rooms looks at our struggle to keep a memory alive once the body is gone. Both works show the effect of time: Two Rooms comes across as a little dated, although emotionally relevant, whereas A Body of Water shows a modern playwright who is utterly exhausted.

- A Body of Water

Photo/James Leynse

If you somehow managed to condense Lost into a two-person play, added a third character to twist the plot in a Memento-type fashion, and then stripped out the drama, you'd have Lee Blessing's aimless new play, A Body of Water. Normally, plays either suffer from characters in search of a plot, or a plot in search of characters: here, Blessing suffers both simultaneously, for his characters are in search of their character, and that, in effect, is the plot.

Moss (Michael Cristofer) and Avis (Christine Lahti) awake to find themselves naked in bed together; after casually regrouping in bathrobes that conveniently fit them, they set about rationally exploring the situation. There are some comic bits, particularly involving a search for scrotal birthmarks that might trigger some insight, and then Wren (Laura Odeh) enters, clarifying that A Body of Water is actually a drama, and that Moss and Avis, married, are on trial for murder, and that she is trying to get them to remember enough to defend themselves.

Just kidding! Actually, as Wren confesses--fifteen minutes later--she's actually their daughter, and she's just messing with them because their memory loss, which has made her a live-in nurse, drives her crazy, and this is her revenge. As for the accident, it's a murder-suicide. Or not. We're as much in the dark as Moss and Avis, and considering that they change personalities each time they wake up (this is called a dramatic device: it keeps things "interesting"), the plot is a liquid mess of falsehoods, always rippling in new directions. Maria Mileaf directs broadly, trying to eke out some small shred of entertainment, but when you're stuck going down shit creek without a paddle, the last thing you want is to watch a clown juggling in the backseat.

- Two Rooms

Photo/Aaron Epstein

When Lainie's (Angela Christian) husband, Michael (Michael Laurence) is kidnapped by terrorists on an oversea trip, she resolves to continue to live her life in parallel to his, convinced that living in a dark room, devoid of furniture, will somehow make her feel closer to him. Two Rooms uses this heavy-handed metaphor, to draw the attention of Ellen van Oss (Adinah Alexander), a professional shrew for the State Department, and the manipulative friendship of Walker Harris (Patrick Boll), a reporter obsessed with forcing the government's hand.

The play that follows is too structurally clever to seem real, and Peter Flynn's literal direction (the two rooms are the same set, cued only by a difference in lighting) often confuses the thrust of the action--especially since the actors often sit in the visible wings, watching. These artificial moments don't seem so bad, though, with a blindfold on, and Mr. Laurence does a wonderful job--smooth, strong, and even--living in his dangerous present or, ghost-like, interacting with his comforting past. (Again: it's the same room.) Ms. Christian also feeds nicely off this energy: it gives her a rawer emotion to play with than the intelligent and collected soundbites that she shares with her restrained and professional visitors. Quips and metaphors about birds, for example, are straining to put the hostage situation into context; Lee Blessing does his best writing when he's simply dealing with the actual circumstance (or the dream that Lainie has conjured up for it) and ignoring the lecturing from Ellen (there's a literal PowerPoint presentation of war photos).

Ultimately, it's not the room that's important, but what's inside it--or, in Lainie's case, what's missing from it. The more that Blessing and Flynn fill that world with clever metaphors and literal interpretations, the harder it is for the actors to actually deal with their loneliness and grief.

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