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By The Water
By Elyse Sommer
After that super storm hit, survivors faced the question of trying to rebuild and stay, or accepting the inevitability of other devastating storms. Some communities like Breezy Point in Queens opted to rebuild, this time building on higher, less vulnerable ground. Residents of Staten Island's Ocean Breeze saw little hope for insurance and government funding to cover the cost of rebuilding. The majority therefore favored accepting buyout offers and using the money received to move elsewhere and count on the government to restore their destroyed community to its natural state.
Sharyn Rothstein's By the Water revolves around a family caught up in this all-too timely stay or go situation. Her setting is a working class Staten Island community that closely resembles Ocean Breeze.
While hard times tend to bring people closer together, they also create rifts among neighbors with differing opinions and exacerbate existing problems within a family. Rothstein's Mary and Marty Murphy (Deirdre O'Connell and Vyto Ruginis) and their neighbors and lifelong friends Andrea and Philip Carter (Charlotte Maier and Ethan Phillips) are no exception. It's their friendship fracturing differences and familial problem explosions that keep this fact-inspired drama whooshing along for an attention-holding 90 minutes.
The characters of this timely kitchen sink drama will bring back memories of Arthur Miller's Loman family: Like Willy Loman, Marty Murphy is a blustering, self-deluded, down-on-his luck fellow with a devoted wife and two sons. The Murphy sons, Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Brian (Tom Pelphrey), heat up the emotional tensions. In this case only the younger son spells trouble, troubles that can be traced back to the father as role model The older son's path has also been formed by the father's example, but for him that's meant choosing a different and better path. To further connect the Murphys and Carters, there's a history of a troubled teen affair between Brian and the newly divorced Carter daughter Emily (Cassie Beck).
Like Invested, the only other play by this author I've seen, By the Water grabs and holds your interest mainly because its characters talk and act like real people, not stick figures. The actors inhabiting them do well with the shifts in mood and personality. If the problems and conflicts tend to pile up and conclude a bit too schematically and predictably, Rothstein does so skillfully with enough humor to leaven the seriousness of these storm-tossed lives. Of course, it helps that the actors, top to bottom, bring their characters to vivid life. While the focus is on the Murphy family, Charlotte Maier and Ethon Phillips make invaluable contributions, as does Cassie Beck in the smallest role of their daughter.
Director Hal Brooks and his design team have supported the play and the performers with a visually and aurally effective production. The scene created by Wilson Chin that greets us when we enter MTC's smaller theater is more realistically chaotic than any of Sam Shepard's famous messy finales.
The mess of the Murphy home is intensified by Tyler Micoleau's eerie lighting. It's all so realistically hopeless looking that you can't help wondering how the Murphys can even consider getting it back into livable shape. Yet, compared to the Carters who are left with not so much as a towel, the Murphys are lucky since they still have a skeleton of a house that includes a refrigerator and a couch.
That first scene becomes even more of an unlikely back to normal scenario as we get to know the Murphys. It seems that the storm actually delayed exploding the life Matt Murphy is so passionate to hold onto.
Over the course of a week and twelve scenes an amazing number of familial and neighborly issues come to light. Rothstein allows her characters to grow and change. Hopefully, environmentalists can come up with more ways to change the continuing assaults on this nation's coastal communities.