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The Water's Edge
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Joan Marcus
Tony Goldwyn & Kate Burton
in The Water's Edge
With The Water's Edge, Theresa Rebeck attaches some riders to Thomas Wolfe's admonition that you can't go home again. If it's been 17 years since you left your wife and children, after the death of another child for which at least one of the survivors directly blames you—well, go ahead, but don't expect the homecoming to be nice and easy.

The dangerously glib Richard (Tony Goldwyn) not only expects his overdue return to the ramshackle lakeside house he grew up in to go smoothly; he seems eerily impervious to the tensions his arrival unleashes between his ex-wife Helen (Kate Burton), his grown children Nate (Austin Lysy) and Erica (Mamie Gummer), and his new girlfriend Lucy (Katharine Powell). This may be Rebeck's point—that a sense of entitlement and presumptive ownership makes men oblivious to the misery they cause—but there's a weird emptiness about Richard and his agenda. He wants the old house back, sure, but more importantly he's come back home “to accept the solace of the earth.”

The creeping suspicion that the leading man is a phony is emphasized by the casting. The still-boyish Goldwyn looks roughly a decade younger than Burton (the age difference is just three years, actually), and perhaps only a few years older than Lysy, who plays his adult son. Rebeck has this covered with Helen's quip, “Men age so well. It really is just enough to make you sick.” It's a nice line—Rebeck is never less than witty—but not quite convincing. Are we missing something?

Story continues below

As it turns out, yes we are. Under the even-keeled rhythm set by director Will Frears, the mild squabbles that unfold between Richard, his family, and his unfortunate girlfriend may have the pleasant, low-impact irritability of situation comedy. But in its final, implausible scene, The Water's Edge abruptly goes bonkers, throwing everything that came before into question, though not exactly into the cold, illuminating relief intended.

Early hints from Erica, a pent-up livewire prone to monotonous deployment of the F bomb, do spring to mind in retrospect: a reference to “Greeks bearing gifts,” the characterization of her father's visit as “imperialistic.” But apart from a few flare-ups of temper, nothing else in the play's first 90 minutes or so—no
©2006 Joan Marcus
Mamie Gummer & Tony Goldwyn
in The Water's Edge
t the stuttering naivete of the Opie-like Nate, not the pained self-pity of the too-pretty Lucy, least of all the appealingly dry sarcasm of Helen—prepares us for its over-the-top ending.

For a time, the trials of poor, panicky Lucy become the play's most involving drama, and provide some of its tarter comic moments, too. Tagging along on a dubious journey with a man she hasn't known very long, Lucy spends much of the play ducking the family crossfire. The only one who seems to welcome her unequivocally is the touchingly smitten Nate, to whom she confides, “Therapy is wasted on me.”

This strain of conflict comes to a head in a second-act standoff between Helen and Lucy as they set the table for a family dinner. It's an expert piece of writing, a dance-like scrimmage between unequal partners, and it's played with perfectly calibrated discomfort by Powell and Burton. Indeed, Burton's performance, though it finally collapses under the script's unbearable weight, is a consistent delight: smart, crisp, almost casually strong. If we don't quite catch the clues that she may also be a borderline sociopath, that doesn't take away from the pleasure of Burton's presence.

That's mostly true of The Water's Edge itself, which plays out on Alexander Dodge's handsome backyard set; what we see of the contested house has a distressed, long-unpainted look and a vertiginous slant. But this idyllic location is finally a liability: Characters keep dragging fresh arguments into the yard, even when they've already been talking offstage or between scenes. The inviting setting suggests a summer vacation—an ill-fitting frame indeed for the quasi-Greek tragedy Rebeck paints into it.

The Water's Edge
Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Will Frears
At the Second Stage

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 6/14/2006 9:43:00 AM


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