“By the Water,” a play by Sharyn Rothstein with something original to say about unhappy families, was an excellent choice for the first production collaboration between MTC, a high-profile subscription house, and Ars Nova, an innovative developmental theater. Instead of drawing on the usual pretexts for gathering a fractious family together (Christmas, Thanksgiving, a funeral, etc.), the scribe sends her people to the family home on Staten Island that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy and makes their misfortune a tragedy shared by everyone in their close-knit, working-class community.
What you get in helmer Hal Brooks’ perfectly cast production is a group of wonderful character actors playing wonderful characters. The imposingly built Vyto Ruginis is a commanding figure as Marty Murphy, a recognizable blue-collar guy in his early 60s who has lived his entire life in the house his father built (and set designer Wilson Chin has pretty much leveled), and who feels a deep connection to his neighbors and the community. “This is where we belong, this is where everyone knows us,” he explains to the son who is urging him to take the government buyout and get out of Dodge before the next hurricane hits. “We have history here.”
That’s a simple but profound statement of the hardcore values that used to sustain the working classes — and keep them working through thick and thin. In Marty’s case, it’s also a good cover for some serious mistakes he’s made in his life, and watching him fight to protect his home, his self-image and his dignity is to understand why the breakup of the old social order is so devastating to people who lived and lost the American Dream.
Being both touchy and bossy, Marty isn’t the easiest guy to live with, but he plainly adores his supportive wife, Mary, played by Deirdre O’Connell in that heightened naturalistic style that breathes life into her lovely character. (Credit goes to costumer Jessica Pabst for putting her in the kind of casual clothing that someone who lives on the beach would actually wear.) Mary dotes on him, too, in her sweet-tempered way, even when he throws himself into the lost cause of petitioning his neighbors to turn down those tempting buyouts and rebuild their waterlogged community.
“You can’t fix the whole town,” Mary tells Marty. “You can’t make it right for everyone.” No, he can’t. But he can certainly make you feel the heartbreaking loss when entire neighborhoods are uprooted and lifelong friends are scattered to the winds.
Their own best friends, Phil and Andrea Carter, played by Ethan Phillips and Charlotte Maier with the same easygoing air of tender familiarity, find themselves in the unhappy position of being their ex-best friends when they try to talk Marty down from his unpopular campaign. And they don’t even know about the secret shame that’s making him so bullish.
The only good thing that comes out of this sorry situation is that it brings the couple’s two estranged sons back home. Quincy Dunn-Baker deals thoughtfully with starchy older brother Sal, the only person in this family with actual money to his name. Tom Pelphrey finds the devilishly charming side of Brian, who screwed up his life so badly he wound up in jail. Even with his record, he’s still got the personal magnetism to attract his ex-girlfriend, Emily, who’s kind of irresistible herself, in Cassie Beck’s perf.
With all the charged emotions swirling around this family and the very real problems they’re trying to deal with, Rothstein makes it clear that they all love one another and are prepared to make sacrifices to help whoever among them needs help. Theirs is the kind of family that somehow always manages to hang together and muddle on, so long as they have something solid to hang onto, like a loving spouse, or children who show up to help in a pinch, or next-door neighbors they can laugh with — or a house in a neighborhood that feels like home.