Keeping their heads above water



Crisis of identity in profilic playwrights latest


Written by Lee Blessing

Directed by Maria Mileaf

A Primary Stages production

Through November 16

59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street

212-279-4200, 59e59.org

Your name is Moss. How do you know your name is Moss? You don’t know how you know, you just do. You wake up one morning, next to this good-looking woman, in a big well-designed house high on a wooded hilltop overlooking what appears to be a lake of some sort on three or more sides, and your name is Moss. That’s all you know.

Your name is Avis. How do you know your name is Avis (a name that also means bird)? You don’t know how you know, you just do. You wake up one morning, next to this handsome man, in a big well-designed house high on a wooded hilltop overlooking a lake of some sort on three or more sides, and your name is Avis. That’s all you know.

Are you and Moss (Avis) married to one another? Do you even know one another? Have you ever even met one another before this morning? Do you not have a child with him (her), a daughter? And who is this young woman who breezes in from outdoors as you’re eating breakfast and says her name is Wren – you know, like the little bird – and starts asking both of you uncomfortable questions about the daughter the two of you, she suggests, may have murdered and disposed of in that body of water down below?

Lee Blessing, who wrote “A Body of Water,” the play in its New York premier through November 16 at 59E59 Theaters, does not look or sound anything like as spooky as his subject matter. He is a large, solid, gray-haired guy who lives in Brooklyn and runs the Graduate Playwriting Program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

He figures he’s written 30 full-length plays over the years, one of them being the 1988 Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominee “A Walk in the Woods” – Blessing, who grew up in Minnesota, seems to have a thing abut woods – in which a Russian foreign-service officer and his American counterpart take a civilized arm-in-arm disarmament stroll among the birch trees.

More emotionally jolting was Blessing’s follow-up, “Two Rooms,” which ricochets back and forth between a blindfolded, handcuffed American in some miserable enclosure somewhere in (perhaps) Beirut and his desperate, stoic, and very angry wife back in America.

It premiered in New York in the Signature Theater’s 1993 all-Blessing season, not long before Mid-East kidnappers started sawing off the heads of their victims. “It’s been done a lot all over since 9/11,” the playwright says dryly – most recently at the Lion here on Theater Row. “In every city they say: ‘Think you can update it?’ – and a week later: ‘Don’t bother.’ ” Such is its impact.

At the first reading of “A Body of Water,” at the O’Neill Theater Conference in 2003, people were fascinated by its Moss, its Avis, its Wren, and wanted to know where they and it were headed.

“I didn’t tell them because I didn’t know.” But those three characters “tended to flesh out rather quickly,” even if in premieres at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Old Globe in San Diego “they kept changing every time,” and even today “the last scene changes all the time.”

Changes how?

“Not greatly different but crucially different, as I’m finding what I want the play to do.”

Which is?

“That’s almost as mysterious as the play itself.” Pause. “I guess I’m asking the audience to abandon solving the mystery and learn how to live inside a mystery.”

There isn’t anything all that mysterious about Blessing, Minnesota Twins fan.

“They lost Tori Hunter and Johan Santana and still found themselves leading the division on the season’s last day, so they must be doing something right.” His first full-length play, matter of fact, was the 1982 “Old Timers’ Game,” set in a minor-league locker room.

Blessing, who was born in Minneapolis on October 4, 1949, describes his parents, both now dead – his father was a textile wholesaler – as “extremely average, pleasant, normal people.” Home was in the lakeside suburb Minnetonka – “where Frank Lloyd Wright was once arrested under the Mann Act.”

Hmmmm … might there not be a play in that?

Without breaking a beat, Lee Blessing riposted: “Frank’s Big Night.” Then he thought for a moment before he said: “Nobody in my parents’ generation ever went to college. They didn’t go to theater.”

He himself transferred from the University of Minnesota to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. “I wanted to get away and to a smaller school. Reed had only 1,100 students. But they did some good theater.”

His wife, Melanie Marnich, “is not only a playwright but another Minnesota playwright … I was glad there was no language barrier,” he tacked on by way of a little joke. Ms. Marnich at the moment is a scriptwriter for HBO’s “Big Love.”

Blessing, meanwhile, is at work on an adaptation, for Ohio’s Cleveland Playhouse, of Thornton Wilder’s 1935 novel, “Heaven’s My Destination,” about a traveling salesman “who tries to apply his own rigorous brand of fundamentalism” to everyone he meets.

“His name happens to be George Marvin Brush” – a sound-like for somebody else Blessing is writing a play about – “in his post-presidency.” Working title: “When We Go Upon the Sea.” A body of water of a different kind.