It’s a few months after Hurricane Sandy hit New York on October 29, 2012. Staten Island took a beating from the storm and when the lights come up on Sharyn Rothstein’s new play, By the Water, we are there in the aftermath. What looks like it might once have been a house is open to the elements. A broken down sofa is the one recognizable piece of furniture in what used to be the living room, but the windows are gone and so are most of the walls.
This is a skeleton of a house, and its contents are strewn about like confetti right out onto and beyond the solid front door. Marty Murphy, the owner, has just returned from his storm hideaway and his first move is to dislodge a tree branch in the middle of the living room, and toss it out the front door. His wife Mary appears next, and cannot quite believe what she sees. Her two adult sons will turn up to see how they can help. Philip and Andrea Carter, two old friends who have suffered the same kind of loss, will show up too, as will the Carters’ recently divorced daughter Emily.
From this well of polluted water Sharyn Rothstein has drawn a fine family drama that is reminiscent of the best of the sitcoms (“All in the Family” certainly comes to mind) but it’s endowed with more meat on its bones. It deals with characters who’ve struggled always with the thousand natural shocks of which we’re all aware, but the potential loss of a home in which they’ve lived for most of their 38 year marriage is everything to Marty Murphy and his wife. Played with wry humor and brute force by Vyto Riginis and Deirdre O’Connell, they gain stature and earn our interest and our empathy.
Their sons too, Sal and Brian, (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Tom Pelphrey), have much good material with which to work. Brian, the younger, has just spent two years in prison for drug abuse, but he is still the apple of his father’s eye. Sal has risen from his roots and is doing well in the business world of Manhattan. There is tension in this family, and the catastrophe of the damage done by the hurricane is the catalyst that opens old wounds and forces confrontations that are long overdue.
Ethan Phillips and Charlotte Maier as the old friends who have opted to take advantage of the government’s offer to buy them out lend meaty support. Phillips may best be remembered as “Neelix” in the long running “Star Trek” series, but he once again contributes a textured performance that grows into a merciless attack on his friend Marty’s unwillingness to go along with the government offer of help. At least 80% of the owners must agree, or there will not be a deal. A subplot involving the rekindling romance between Brian and the Carters’ daughter Emily probes deeper into the dynamics of this very fine family drama.
What elevates By the Water from soap opera and sitcom is the pungency in the writing, and the power of the performances. It’s been well directed by Hal Brooks, and I found it absorbing, textured, with a satisfying ending that is earned and justified, though bless Ms. Rothstein for finding a way to legitimately mend many of the fences the storm had destroyed. This is the first of her works I’ve seen, and it’s a welcome addition to the blossoming season off Broadway.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of By the Water is onstage through December 7, 2014 at New York City Center, 131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th), NYC.
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Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.