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By the Water

Sharyn Rothstein's new drama explores the aftershocks of Hurricane Sandy.

Vyto Ruginis, Deidre O'Connell, Charlotte Maier, Ethan Phillips, and Quincy Dunn-Baker in Sharyn Rothstein By the Water, directed by Hal Brooks, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II.
(© Joan Marcus)

It's a sight all too familiar to New Yorkers who lived through Hurricane Sandy — people returning to their homes, only to find a junkyard where a multilevel house once stood. As the lights rise on By the Water, a new play by Sharyn Rothstein at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II, this image, and Wilson Chin's wood-strewn wasteland of a set, is almost too much to handle.

For a whole swath of audience members, By the Water, one of the first plays to dramatize the fertile dramatic territory of the 2012 superstorm, will prove painfully close to life. Rothstein has penned an earnest piece for this coproduction of MTC and Ars Nova, one that's not ashamed to go straight for the heartstrings. Even though it's too overstuffed for its own good with manufactured conflict, there's more than enough to admire, especially in Hal Brooks' extraordinarily acted staging.

At the center of By the Water are Mary and Marty Murphy (Deirdre O'Connell and Vyto Ruginis), a pair of 60somethings whose residence on the Staten Island coastline was basically demolished. Their faith in God is what pulled them through, and their first line of defense for not wanting to move, no matter how much they are urged by their elder son, Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker). But for some dubious reason, Marty won't budge, going so far as to start a campaign to save the community when presented by their best friends Philip and Andrea (Ethan Phillips and Charlotte Maier) with the opportunity at a government buyout of the land. A second storyline follows Sal's rocky relationship with his brother, Brian (Tom Pelphrey), a former addict recently released after 29 months in prison. Brian is simultaneously trying to repair his relationship with his brother while also attempting to make it right with his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Cassie Beck).

Marty's darker motivations come into light late in the play, when you realize that Rothstein has been leading you down a path paved with deception. This is an attention-grabbing concept, but one that wholly doesn't work; not only does it make a fairly agreeable character completely unlikable, but it causes nearly every scene in the drama's latter half to end in a screaming match. Fortunately, Ruginis is exceptional enough that he makes this work, finding an astonishing amount of layers and making this unthinking monster both human and completely identifiable. He is expertly matched with O'Connell, who is breathtaking as the wife who always takes a backseat to her husband. Meanwhile, Dunn-Baker turns in a performance filled with inner turmoil that stems from the fact that he managed to get out of the neighborhood and make something of himself while no one else really has. The tangential storyline between Brian and Emily is enhanced by Pelphrey and Beck, who have a lovely chemistry and hidden yearning that they're unable to speak.

At a recent performance of By the Water, the notoriously hard to please Sunday-matinee audience gave the production a spontaneous standing ovation and couldn't stop talking about it on their way out. Warts and all, this new drama strikes a chord — and says something about the way human beings survive in the face of unspeakable tragedy — in a way that many other plays currently running in Manhattan do not.

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