Laura and Bliss make an unlikely pair trekking across a national park in the Southwest containing the cliff dwellings of a long-vanished Native American people. Laura's a middle-aged blonde, a vision in pink, in chic suit, matching handbag, and high-heeled pumps. Bliss is a young black woman in hiking clothes carrying a huge backpack. She's also Laura's daughter, presumably adopted.
In Arden Kass' Knowing Bliss, the two — together with the Native American symbols and barren terrains projected onto the set — make a striking visualization of the multicultural American landscape, which this provocative but awkward play explores. As the script unravels its complex exposition, things veer from formulaic to strained.
Bliss, working on a doctorate in cultural anthropology, has undertaken this trip to repair her troubled sense of self. She's discovered through DNA testing that she's partly Native American. Add that to long childhood absences from her mother, a working actor, and her youthful upbringing with bigoted grandparents in Mississippi, and it's no wonder she's stalled on her dissertation. Laura has given up a national commercial for this trip, hoping to strengthen the bruised relationship with her daughter.
The two women finally reconnect thanks to healing visions found on their journey, coming after a long day of bickering and revelations, including a long-hidden family secret.
The production, directed by Lorca Peress, includes a group of spectral dancers who appear frequently to portray critters, ghosts, and landscape formations. But they seem at odds with the naturalistic dialogue. Laura makes nonstop wisecracks, while Bliss stews in her own unhappiness.
Nevertheless, Laura, played with vivacity by Blanche Baker, is an entertaining character. Baker is the daughter of Carroll Baker of Baby Doll fame and an actor of some repute on her own, returning to the stage after time off to raise her family. Candice Waugh Myers gives Bliss admirable intensity, but isn't able to bring much variety to the character's pouty indignation.
Presented by MultiStages at Teatro La Tea at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St., NYC. April 28-May 13. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.