EmptyVenue: 59E59 Theaters (Through Nov. 16)
Christine Lahti is back in town, in the new Lee Blessing play "A Body of Water." This is the first time Lahti has appeared on the New York stage since 1990, and she an co-star Michael Cristofer make the event a delight to savor.
The same cannot be said for Blessing's drama, a contrived and labored effort that opened Tuesday night for a limited off-Broadway run.
Set in an elegantly spare country house that is surrounded on all sides by the aforementioned body of water (scene designer Neil Patel uses projections to excellent effect), Blessing's play involves an attractive middle-aged couple who wake up one morning and do not know who they are.
Are they married to each other? Have they had sex during the night? And who is the energetic, not-very-pleasant young woman (Laura Odeh) that suddenly appears to serve them bagels and cream cheese? Is she their daughter, a hired caretaker or something closer to a prison warden?
The identity crisis at first involves amusing interplay, as Avis (Lahti) and Moss (Cristofer) try to figure out how they came to wake up in the same bed and what transpired between them. Maria Mileaf's direction is brisk, and the two actors extract comedy from every suggestive and, in one case, hilariously graphic, moment.
But as the 90-minute play goes along, the turns and twists of the couple's mystery feel increasingly arbitrary and heavy-handed. Are Avis and Moss the victims of a horrific accident that has deprived them of memory, or is something more metaphoric at work here? Is this "No Exit" circa 2008? Do we care?
Only the performances of Lahti ("Chicago Hope") and Cristofer ("The Shadow Box") draw us into this conundrum. The pair deftly navigates the shoals of anger, fear and love, as the characters strive to make sense of their predicament.
But Blessing ("A Walk in the Woods") has usually been more effective writing realistic drama, and "Body of Water" ultimately sinks beneath the weight of its all-too-obvious symbolism.
Cast: Michael Cristofer, Christine Lahti, Laura Odeh.
Playwright: Lee Blessing.
Director: Maria Mileaf.
Set design: Neil Patel.
Costume design: Candice Donnelly.
Lighting design: Jeff Choiter.
Original music and sound design: Bart Fasbender.