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The Water's Edge

Theresa Rebeck's modern Greek tragedy suffers from a tragic flaw -- maybe even several of them. logo
Austin Lysy, Mamie Gummer, Tony Goldwyn, and Kate Burton
in The Water's Edge
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Theresa Rebeck's The Water's Edge has a lot going for it -- most notably a great performance by Kate Burton. But the play suffers from a tragic flaw -- maybe even several of them -- that undercuts its effectiveness.

The plot revolves around Richard (Tony Goldwyn), a successful businessman who has brought his new and much younger girlfriend Lucy (Katharine Powell) back to his former home, a large country house near a lake. It's been 17 years since he was last on the premises, and his children Nate (Austin Lysy) and Erica (Mamie Gummer) are now adults who live there with their mother, Helen (Kate Burton). Richard wants a familial reconciliation; he believes he's suffered enough as a result of the unfortunate incident that drove him away so many years ago. And one more thing: he wants the house back.

Rebeck has more in mind with this play than a small-scale domestic drama. She's aimed to create a modern-day Greek tragedy, borrowing heavily from Aeschylus' The Orestia. The parallels between the two works are evident from the beginning of the play, although they're introduced subtly enough that most audience members probably won't even make the connection. By the final scene, however, they overwhelm the narrative and end up feeling forced.

Burton is flawless as the family matriarch; hers is a layered performance that is commanding, vulnerable, calculating, and sympatheticall at once. Every gesture and vocal inflection has meaning, and yet her performance always seems natural. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of Goldwyn. He needs to demonstrate the charisma that would make the other characters' reactions to Richard believable, but instead his stilted acting is extremely damaging to the production.

Gummer is hilarious as the volatile Erica, who is carrying so much rage inside that it escapes in short bursts of anger and profanity. She edges close to overdoing it, but stops just short of caricature. Lysy is mostly wonderful. He has perfected the quirky and fragmented manner in which Nate speaks, but unfortunately, he can't quite pull off the closing scene in which his character undergoes a swift and clunkily written change in personality. Powell does a great job with an underwritten character. She also gets to deliver my favorite line in the play: "Therapy is wasted on me."

Rebeck whips out such one-liners on several occasions, allowing the audience to be drawn in by the play's lighter touches. They also take the edge off of the tremendous amount of exposition that Rebeck includes. However, she doesn't always take the time to sufficiently develop the characters' relationships to each other. We see some of it -- particularly Erica's warming up to her father -- but much of the rest is sketched in or painted in broad strokes.

Alexander Dodge's set, dominated by a humongous and somewhat decrepit house with large columns suggestive of Greek architecture, is visually striking. Towards the back of the stage is a vision of the lake, gorgeously lit by lighting designer Frances Aronson. Vincent Olivieri's sound design, Michael Friedman's original music, and Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes all make a positive contribution to the production. But director Will Frears overemphasizes the comedic aspects of the play, which creates problems in the work's overall tone. This is particularly true of the final scene -- which you're unsure whether to laugh at or take seriously. It tries for both and ends up succeeding at neither.

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