THE BLOG
11/18/2014 11:48 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

First Nighter: Sharyn Rothstein's 'By the Water' Makes Strong Waves

Not that this'll ease those still suffering the devastating Hurricane Sandy effects, but it turns out the monstrously ill 2012 wind has blown a bit of good. By the Water, Sharyn Rothstein's drama at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II, is about a Staten Island family having immense difficulty overcoming the damage to their waterfront home. It's a first-rate play receiving a first-rate production.

Mary Murphy (Deirdre O'Connell) and Marty Murphy (Vyto Ruginis) are devoted to each other and are also devoted to a house that has little more than the frames left standing. They intend to remain and rebuild when many neighbors are strongly tempted to take the government buy-outs offered.

Older son Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who long since married business woman Jenny (never seen) and left Staten Island behind to his dad's unabated resentment, is concerned about the decision and arrives to talk them out of it--not a likely prospect, given Marty's inflexibility. Sal has also prevailed for support on younger brother Brian (Tom Pelphrey), only recently out of a 29-nine-month prison term for burglary.

Also visiting the forbidding confines from time to time are the Murphys' best friends, Andrea Carter (Charlotte Maier) and Phil Carter (Ethan Phillips). They're among those looking to move away--in their case, to Montclair, New Jersey--and would like to convince their pals that's the thing to do. The Murphys and the Carters remained close despite the bad time Brian gave the Carters' divorced daughter Emily Mancini (Cassie Becks) during an earlier relationship. It's a complication that intensifies when Brian and Cassie cross paths again in the compromised dunes.

Playwright Rothstein establishes Marty as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle. He's a man maintaining the importance of community preservation and is particularly adamant about his intentions as a result of refusing to recognize Sal's point of view. Part of the grudge he holds is due to Sal's participation in Brian's arrest.

Favoring Brian, Marty fights Sal with venom and even turns on the Carters when they persist in arguing for a Montclair-like move at the same time as they oppose his anti-government petition and poster campaign.

Dysfunctional-family plays rarely end without secrets coming to light. By the Water is no exception. (Mild spoiler alert here.) It turns out that Marty has his, which, as they surface, compromise his bombastic stance and render him far less persuasive to those around him. Sal has his secrets, too, but they're a good deal more positive and concern his and Jenny's decisions about how to help the older Murphys. As Brian and Emily revive a romance, their big secret is open but not necessarily thrilling to Andrea.

On Wilson Chin's scattered, cluttered set, Rothstein's fiery confrontations never stop igniting. Characters are allied with each other at moments and are in conflict within immediately following moments. Every twist, every about face is disturbingly realistic.

Rothstein gets the combative father-son feel right, down to the Oedipal undercurrents. She also does well with depicting the complexities of long-term friendships. She lays bare what has bonded the Murphys and the Carters over 30-plus years. She's adroit at exposing what they've chosen to admire or dismiss in each other--the inclinations they've opted to focus on while overlooking others.

Before she reaches her bittersweet ending, she's examined a strong marriage that's greatly tested as well as she's probed deeply into fractious parent-child relationships. What she's wise about demonstrating is the multi-faceted nature of honest familial and friendly love. Not an easy achievement but one she attains.

This season is shaping up as strong on ensemble playing. The By the Water cast, as directed muscularly by Hal Brooks, fits right in. The beefy Ruginis, whose mere presence is intimidating, runs emotion's gamut as if he's doing a 26-mile marathon and ending it panting but unbowed.

Dunn-Baker, also physically imposing, brings out a good man's frustration at only wanting to help when it's the last thing wanted of him. He hints nicely at Sal's hidden worries about a marriage foundering as a result of his being pulled between parents and wife. Pelphrey's Brian is a contrite fellow uneasily finding his footing.

Maier and Phillips as the devoted but challenged Carters also convey their confused feelings. Frustration gets a workout on all sides, and Maier and Phillips depict it especially well. As Emily is pulled into a love affair she considered long over and dispensed with, Beck handily plays the hardened thirtysomething woman tempted to soften.

As for O'Connell, here are a few special words. She could be, and should be, tagged a First Lady of Off-Broadway--along with others like Kathleen Chalfant and Marin Ireland. More often than not, she's called on to portray a lower-class woman in distress but battling it with every fiber in her small frame.

If O'Connell has ever played someone whose hair is immaculately combed, I've missed it. I haven't, however, missed her ability to be thoroughly natural in any situation a script presents her. My guess is I'm not alone in relaxing when, on opening a program, I see her name in the cast list.

Incidentally, at the back of the program, thanks go out to Derek Tobacco at non-profit Guyon Rescue for leading a tour the cast took of ravaged Fox Beach. It's difficult to think that the images the actors retained aren't informing the effective playing.

If anyone reading this review is thinking of the play's similarity to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, there's no reason to hang his or her head. The focus on an overbearing father with two sons and a wife defending him despite his failings is undeniably in the Miller mood and mode.

As Linda Loman said then, "Attention must be paid," and as Mary Murphy could say now, "Attention must be paid." They're both right.