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A CurtainUp Review
The Water's Edge
by Les Gutman
How hard could it be to write half of a Chekhov play? Not that hard, it seems, if you are Theresa Rebeck. Act I of The Water's Edge feels like a respectable step-child of Chekhov. Many of the elements are there: lots of symbolic environment, here of the New England bucolic variety; a rich relative from the city; obligatory dialogue interrupted by amplitudes of long-simmering chips on shoulders, and other interstices filled with silence and repetition; and the fascination with some object that seems destined to figure in what's to come.
The next question is: what do you do for a second act? Rebeck's answer is to turn to an entirely different, much older classical source. I'm not going to describe it in detail; let's just say the wheel falls off the carriage, and the biggest tragedy is not what happens onstage but what becomes of the play itself.
Back to Act I. After a seventeen year hiatus, Richard (Tony Goldwyn) returns to his family homestead-on-a-lake with a younger girlfriend, Lucy (Katherine Powell) in tow. The house is still occupied by his estranged wife, Helen (Kate Burton), and their two children, Erica (Mamie Gummer) and Nate (Austin Lysy). He's not a welcome guest -- Lucy, not surprisingly even less so -- but it's clear he wants to reconnect, at least with his kids. And, by the way, he also wants to reclaim the house. He manages to insinuate himself into the household for a few days, and to have a pas de deux of one sort or another with each of his family members. As the first act comes to a close, the four of them sit down to an al fresco dinner while Lucy is dispatched to a nearby restaurant for the evening.
In keeping with the Chekhov motif, much of what transpires is talk, and Rebeck does an admirable job of revealing each character through it. The casting is especially well targeted, and all of the actors develop the characters thoughtfully under Will Frears' largely stay-out-of-the-way direction. (One wonders at times if this is good directing or just a lack of certainty, as there are hints of the latter.)
Richard has become very successful and rich. Goldwyn succeeds in conveying both the extent to which money has shaped his point of view and also his poetic, perhaps romantic, desire to have a relationship with family and home. The intervening years have caused Helen to develop a fortress mentality, and Burton imbues the character with a generalized distrust of men and a particularized one of Richard. (hers is the performance not to miss here.) This has prompted an unhealthy protectiveness of the children (which persists even now), especially with Nate. Nate is still a Mama's boy well into his twenties -- his mother's cult of one, it seems. He's a voracious reader, though it's not clear he learns all that much from what he reads. In Lysy's hands, he's certainly challenged developmentally, but he makes up in passion what he lacks in smarts. Erica has the smarts; Gummer makes the spunky girl rush in with a pre-judgment of almost everything and everyone, and then she nicely shows the cracks in her shell. Lucy is the odd girl out, spending much of the play saying she shouldn't be there, and she's probably right except the story would never get told without her.
Alexander Dodge's set is terrific -- an imposing albeit rundown house opening onto a practically grassless backyard, with a view of the lake delivered by way of a particularly wonderful backdrop. An old bathtub -- installed there by Richard's father -- is installed in front of a fence, opposite. Lights, costumes and sound are handled quite well too.
It's all a fine foundation, this Act I. Who knew how crumbled it was to become.
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