By The Water is a quintessential New York City story. It sounds like stating the obvious, since it is about one Murphy family of Staten Island. This Murphy family has been hit hard by the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Unlike some of their friends and neighbors who literally have nothing left, the Murphy house is still standing, albeit full of holes and debris. Yet in the aftermath of the storm, coming out of shock, the Murphy family jokes and quips with the natural humor that is in a New Yorker’s DNA. Through storms, blackouts, and subway strikes, humor is this city’s survival technique, as well as its precious gift to the USA. Playwright Sharyn Rothstein gets it. It isn’t the skyscrapers and lofts inhabited by ambitious career climbers, but the grit and wit, the ethnic enclaves, the family life, and the beaches and marinas that made New York this great city of contrasts. The Murphy family conjures up sentimental memories for this writer, a native New Yorker who mourns her disappearing real New York.
Ms. Rothstein gives her characters humor in adversity, but let me not mislead you. This is a family drama, the kind that fell out of fashion for a while in theater. Director Hal Brooks makes clever use of the openness of the rectangular thrust stage that paints a picture of a house exposed by blown out walls. With a bluish backdrop suggesting water and a floor covered in wreckage, Wilson Chin’s set brings us to the coastal Staten Island town before the play begins.
The house was passed to husband Marty Murphy (Vyto Ruginis) by his father. Marty’s wife Mary (Deirdre O’Connell) has lived there with Marty for thirty-four of their thirty-eight years together. They raised two sons Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Brian (Tom Pelphrey) in what is Paradise to them, a few short blocks from the beach. Theirs is a tight-knit Catholic community, you can still find settled in the dozens of villages that make up the outer boroughs. The older, married son Sal makes the trip by ferry from Manhattan to help his parents when they return home from the hotel where they were evacuated. Marty and Mary deride his choice to pay a fortune to live in a cubby hole of an apartment in Manhattan. The younger son Brian arrives. Whereas his older brother is a success selling internet ads, Brian was the screw-up. He spent twenty-nine months in prison for stealing a car stereo. His rehabilitation includes his job as a cook at the Olive Garden in Manhattan.
The heart of the conflict is Marty’s stubborn refusal to give up on rebuilding his house, despite two hurricanes in two years, a walloping Nor’easter in 1992, and more climate destruction predicted. Most of their neighbors are considering the government’s offer of a lucrative buyout to induce them to move away from the menacing coast. Their best friends Philip Carter (Ethan Phillips) and his wife Andrea (Charlotte Maier) were completely wiped out, with not even a family photo left to cherish. They want to join their kids and grandkids in inland New Jersey. This old friendship comes to blows over Marty’s campaign to convince his community to stay and rebuild, while the Carters want to take the money and run. Despite the Carters’ growing anger at Marty for blocking the buyout, their recently divorced daughter Emily (Cassie Beck) and Brian Murphy pick up their youthful love.
As in all families, there are underlying issues festering. Marty was a tax dodger and is deeply mired in debt. Mary has always stood by him, but a rebellion in her is brewing. Marty blames Sal for Brian’s incarceration, since he told the police where to find Brian. The ensemble cast works beautifully together, bringing their characters and relationships to life with truth. Their realism is a gift to audiences accustomed to glossy cue to cue acting. Though this community’s disaster isn’t ours, its emotions and fabric of human connection are universal.
By The Water
WITH: Vyto Ruginis (Marty Murphy), Deirdre O’Connell (Mary Murphy), Quincy Dunn-Baker (Sal Murphy), Tom Pelphrey (Brian Murphy), Ethan Phillips (Philip Carter), Charlotte Maier (Andrea Carter), Cassie Beck (Emily Mancini).
By Sharyn Rothstein; directed by Hal Brooks; sets by Wilson Chin; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; original music and sound by Ryan Rumery; dialect coach, Ben Furey; production stage manager, E. Sara Barnes; casting by Nancy Piccione & Kelly Gillespie; general manager, Florie Seery; press rep, Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow, Executive Producer, Barry Grove, in association with Ars Nova. At The Studio at Stage II – New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For tickets CityTix® (212-581-1212), www.nycitycenter.org and at the New York City Center Box Office. All tickets are $30. Through December 7, 2014. Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.