By Sharyn Rothstein; Directed by Hal Brooks
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and Ars Nova
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 12.7.14
NY City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
by Geri Silver on 11.18.14
Deirdre O'Connell and Vyto Ruginis in By The Water. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: The world premiere of Sharyn Rothstein’s By The Water is a timely and impactful family drama about a Staten Island community ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The mysteriously elusive American Dream has been the subject of many powerful classic and modern American dramas, and the family at the center of Sharyn Rothstein’s new play By The Water is similarly plagued by the frustrating search for middle class stability. Before Hurricane Sandy, Marty and Mary Murphy (Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O’Connell) seemed to be living their version of the American Dream -- happily married for 38 years, loved by the community in their tight-knit Staten Island town, looking forward to one day becoming grandparents. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through their beloved town, effectively washing away the fragile stability they’d maintained for years. In a striking premiere production in a Manhattan Theatre Club and Ars Nova collaboration to advance new works, Rothstein’s By The Water is both timeless and timely in its portrayal of an American family’s struggle and strength.
By The Water begins a few months after Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, wreaked havoc on the Northeast, causing unprecedented destruction to homes and lives in the region. Compared to others in the neighborhood, the Murphy family was lucky; they may have a gaping whole in their wall, but their house is still standing and their refrigerator miraculously survived the floods. Others in their small town, including long-time friends and neighbors Andrea and Philip Carter (Charlotte Maier and Ethan Phillips), are left with nothing, forced to make tough decisions on what to do and where to go next. Marty Murphy is determined to rebuild; Mary is determined to support Marty and keep the peace; and when their two adult sons (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Tom Pelphrey) come home to help clean, family secrets and baggage create a whole new mess.
Rothstein's carefully etched characters and their complex histories and relationships come through strongly in the tight 90-minute play directed by Hal Brooks, which is both impressively relevant while remaining universally truthful. The unnamed villain in By The Water is climate change -- the home and town so beloved and safe to generations of middle class families has become a place of fear and danger, with a feeling of inevitability that similar catastrophes are bound to strike again with higher frequency and more force than ever before. The worsening threat to the town permeates the conflict in the play, testing friendships and family ties as characters grapple with the change and what it means. But while this is central to the story, the disaster-ridden town (with effective scenic design by Wilson Chin) serves as an excellent backdrop to expose the tensions and personal conflicts between the Murphy family and their neighbors, and these stories are equally compelling. Financial struggles, legal woes, dangerous habits, and old heartbreaks are brought to the forefront, and an all-around strong ensemble (which also includes Cassie Beck as neighbor Emily) keeps the character-driven play fast-paced and engaging.
By The Water proves to be a promising debut in the unique partnership between MTC and Ars Nova and an impressive premiere of a relevant contemporary play. Though particularly timely, the play is a complex family drama with heart and power that is only enhanced by its uniquely current setting.
(By The Water plays at NY City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, through December 7, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30PM; Wednesdays at 2:30PM and 7:30PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2:30PM and 7:30PM; and Sundays at 2:30PM. Tickets are $30 and are available at nycitycenter.org or by calling 212.581.1212.)