With Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene” having received an enthusiastic reception earlier this year at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, its upcoming Second Stage production is one of the more keenly anticipated Off Broadway entries next season. To avoid eroding that sense of anticipation, it may be best to disregard “The Water’s Edge,” Rebeck’s imbalanced reworking of “The Oresteia,” which shanghais a strong cast led by the ever-admirable Kate Burton and squanders Will Frears’ smooth staging. An absorbing domestic drama in act one, the misconceived play goes off the rails as it veers into high-Greek mode in act two.
A B-grade dysfunctional-family Hollywood psychodrama waiting to happen, story is set on the back porch of a once-stately old home, now fallen into disrepair, in a quiet lakeside spot that seems to be somewhere in Massachusetts.
Early hints that danger lurks come from Alexander Dodge’s semi-stylized set, with its warped perspective and a panoramic, still-water backdrop that we know from noir and horror conventions will prove far less serene than it seems. Talk of monsters waiting in the deep and of the water’s mysterious shifts from warm to cold also point up the hidden menace. While there’s no creature from the black lagoon or even a Freddy or Jason on hand, the mayhem unleashed by the playwright is no more rooted in credibility.
The house is occupied by acerbic Helen (Burton) and her twentysomething children Nate (Austin Lysy) and Erica (Mamie Gummer). Their lives are jolted by the sudden return of Helen’s successful ex-husband, Richard (Tony Goldwyn), with much younger girlfriend Lucy (Katharine Powell) in tow. Back after a 17-year absence with no communication aside from monthly checks, Richard waxes lyrical about the earth, the trees, the sense of belonging and reveals his intent to reclaim his childhood home.
Rebeck gradually discloses the tragedy that ended the marriage and the emotional baggage still to be dealt with. High-strung Helen struggles to maintain her composure, Erica spews hostility and Nate opens a tentative door to his father; Lucy hovers uncomfortably on the sidelines, Richard’s failure to fill her in on the background making her question her security in the relatively new relationship.
Smart, often dryly humorous dialogue keeps the play watchable, but the writing is steadily undermined by the characters’ inconsistent behavior. The violent turn of events also is telegraphed too transparently, both in the buildup — as Richard reacquaints himself with the family-man role and Helen appears to let down her guard — and in the immediate aftermath. With or without the play’s loose grounding in a familiar Greek tragedy, the blood-drenched deed that dominates act two would be apparent long before it’s revealed.
Overwrought as the plotting becomes, it’s Rebeck’s belabored psychological commentary that really sinks things, saddling Burton, in particular, with an awkward full-blown dissertation about justice, grief, vengeance and unyielding gods. It seems no fault of the actors that Nate and Erica’s reactions to the horror don’t for a moment ring true.
Goldwyn, who also appeared in Rebeck’s “Spike Heels” at Second Stage, plays charm with a self-serving edge well. But he’s more persuasive as a powerful man accustomed to his demands being met than as a new age guy in touch with his feelings and re-experiencing his connectedness to a place from his past. Again, however, this fault lies mostly in the writing.
Balancing a brittle manner with vulnerability, and ably milking laughs from Erica’s surliness, Gummer registers as a more rounded presence here than she did in the cartoon context of “Mr. Marmalade.” Lysy brings depth and sensitivity to Nate, his blandly handsome, preppy appearance never hiding his extreme fragility. Powell is sympathetic in a role that could easily have been a cookie-cutter trophy babe.
But it’s the remarkable Burton who commands attention even as the drama unravels. Like Cynthia Nixon’s character in “Rabbit Hole,” Helen is a woman isolated in a chamber of grief, unable and, until late in the action, unwilling to find peace. There’s no comparison here with the compassionate insights of David Lindsay-Abaire’s drama, but Burton’s measured channeling of anger and pain, her naturalness and economy of gesture and emotion, give even an inferior play some dignity.