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Soon After Rocking the Coast, Hurricane Sandy Treads the Boards in By the Water

Playwright Sharyn Rothstein on building a story amid a hurricane's ruins.

By the Water playwright Sharyn Rothstein tours the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island with her Manhattan Theatre Club cast.
(© Richard Mitchell)

Time: A few months after Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29, 2012.
Place: The home of Marty and Mary Murphy, on the eastern coast of Staten Island, New York.

Historical events are always prime sources for raw stage material, but rarely do playwrights mine so close to the surface of our collective past as Sharyn Rothstein has for her new Manhattan Theatre Club/Ars Nova coproduction, By the Water. Barely two years removed from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, a snapshot of its enduring emotional aftermath has washed up on New York City Center's modest Studio at Stage II. The space now houses a scene of destruction, the likes of which is probably fresh in the minds of Rothstein's tri-state-area audiences.

"I knew I had to write for that space," she recalled, noting the one requirement of her commission assignment. "I went in to see the [Stage II] space raw a couple weeks after the storm and immediately envisioned a destroyed house. I thought that the intimacy would really lend itself well to being up close and personal to a family dealing with destruction."

Rothstein's Marty and Mary Murphy (Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O'Connell) find themselves at the head of this bruised and beaten family, whose Staten Island waterfront home just barely continues to stand on New York's most ravaged borough — home to 24 of the storm's 117 casualties (the highest number of casualties by borough). Even so, the couple fights to keep the home they've spent their lives building, despite the urgings by their pragmatic adult son Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and their shaken community, which is tempted by the offer of a government buyout.

A shot of Staten Island, post-Hurricane Sandy.
(© John Makely)

Though Rothstein was not personally affected by the storm (as a resident of Brooklyn's relatively untouched Prospect Heights), the homegrown story quickly stood out as one she wanted to tell. "I started following the news reports about the buyouts and I just thought it was fascinating," she commented. "It's a pretty new program and with global warming and more and more storms coming, this is the kind of challenging social program that we're going to have to be looking at more and more. As I started following those stories in the news, the character of Marty started talking to me and then his story just kind of came to me."

These initial impressions were closely followed by firsthand research — a plentiful resource for a topic whose epicenter is just a ferry ride away.

"The first time I went out there by myself, I was walking along these really destroyed blocks and there was one house with a guy out front tending to his lawn," Rothstein remembered. "His house just looked so well cared for and so well loved, even in the midst of all this destruction. I was really taken by that. I was hoping to capture the humanity and the truth behind someone who would make that decision. That's not a decision that comes lightly — to live within all of this ruin. You must have an incredible history in this place to want to do that, or be up against really daunting challenges."

Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O'Connell, stars of Rothstein's world premiere play, look out on the water surrounding Staten Island.
(© Richard Mitchell)

Both a bond to the past and a fear of the future come into play as the consequences of the economic recession pile onto the Murphy family wreckage. "So many people in their late fifties and sixties who had worked their whole lives are now in this position where it was supposed to be easy and it's not," she added. "To be faced with that and to also be faced with natural disaster, I just started to think about generations — what that would mean, not just for Marty and Mary, but for their children."

And for Marty, a career grocer and patriarch of this blue-collar Staten Island neighborhood, the propagation of a tight-knit family and community environment is at the top of his priority list. It may even rank above considerations of personal safety and financial well-being, despite a few incriminating character flaws that perhaps suggest otherwise. "From the minute I started hearing Marty Murphy talk to me, I was always aware that this was a man of great humanity," said Rothstein of her leading character. "He and his wife are survivors and they have great warmth and humor. To me, to be able to hold onto those things in the midst of so much hardship is just an incredible feat."

Vyto Ruginis, Deirdre O'Connell, and Ethan Phillips in the cast of By the Water at MTC's Studio at Stage II at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)
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