Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Clytem-..., Oedip-..., Who?"

(Spoiler alert: If you plan to see the show, this review includes the plot twists at the end of the play.)

Second Stage's production of Theresa Rebeck's "The Water's Edge" brings together a remarkably talented cast in what starts out as an interesting and deep tale of a family split over the death of one of the three children. Kate Burton plays Helen, crushed by her daughter Leah's drowning 17 years ago. She has stayed in the family home since Richard (Tony Goldwyn) left, shortly after the death, with her two remaining and now grown children, Nate (Austin Lysy) and Erica (Mamie Gummer). Richard has returned to be greeted by his very surprised children, with a young girlfriend in tow, Lucy (Katharine Powell). Richard makes the purpose for his appearance known very early on. He wants the house back, and if possible, his family as well. The children immediately differ on their reaction to Richard. Erica is more than angry - the "f" word is a significant part of how she demonstrates it. Nate is much more the dutiful son, easily persuaded that his father's return might be a good thing. Lucy learns the unfortunate history of the family, from Leah's drowning to the fact that Helen and Richard never officially divorced.

The second act takes a very strange left turn out of reality, turning the story into a retelling of "Agamemnon" complete with the blood. Helen and Richard have a quiet dinner with their children. Helen has managed to get Lucy out of the picture for the evening, and it looks like a reconciliation is underway. They hash through the events of Leah's death. Richard appears to have finally convinced Helen that he was not being unfaithful. The scene ends with Helen undressing Richard. Early the next morning, Lucy rises to find Richard gone with no note or message, other than what she is told by Helen and Nate. As Lucy presses to understand why he left without saying goodbye, Nate snaps and reveals that Helen has murdered Richard (a la Clytemnestra) and he helped dispose of the body. His Oedipal devotion to his mother finally showsthat he is more disturbed than just sensitive. Realizing the ramifications of his actions, he tries to talk Erica into helping him kill Helen to resolve the situation, ending the hold their parents have over both of them. Lucy tries to bring reason, but Erica's protective side runs her off. Helen reappears and re-affirms her control over the children as the play ends.

As Helen, Ms. Burton once again gives the gold standard of performance. Years of resentment, recrimination and rationalization have twisted her perspective into once of conflict and contradiction. She thinks she has handled her grief and her children well, when in actuality she's done neither. She sends nothing but mixed messages to Nate, "You're not my slave" in one breath, followed by "Be sure to get the napkins, you always forget the napkins" in the next. Ms. Burton brings credibility and depth to what might otherwise be a two-dimensional harpie. Still, the script gives her quite a task to achieve what she presented here.

Mr. Goldwyn, still more than remarkably handsome, also manages to bring humanity to a broad sketch of a role. (BTW, he also continues the current NYC theatre tradition of brief, but full nudity in Act II.) His Richard hasn't born the weight of the previous 17 years like Helen has. He's moved on, or at least appears so.

The real standout in this cast is Mamie Gummer (yes, she is Meryl Streep's daugher, and yes, it seems she got the gene!). Her Erica is angry, but she's won over by her father from time to time. Ms. Gummer brings an intensity and passion to a confused and abandoned child. Of all the dialogue in the play, the scenes that play as the most real are the ones with Erica fully engaged.

Rounding out the cast are Austin Lysy and Katharine Powell. Mr. Lysy's Nate, described as "sensitive" by a protective sister and has you wondering whether he's merely that, demonstrates there are many more issues. Ms. Powell is not quite as successful with a role that seems more like a plot contrivance, someone whose presence is there only to facilitate exposition.

Alexander Dodge's outdoor set evokes the Greek tragedy to come with an overscaled house facade with Greek Revival ornamentation. The timeworn exterior, stage right, is heavily slanted in perspective as it either leans or is drawn toward the lake on the backdrop. A fence, left, has a large crop of sunflowers peering over, as if unable to cross the line and bring cheer to the house. Behind the sunflowers is quite a large oak tree (call me anal, but sunflowers wouldn't grow under such a heavy tree canopy - still, I get the analogy). Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes tie in to the plot very well. Helen is quite casual in jeans and cool blues for the first act, presenting an image of a worn, but calm exterior. She shows up in a filmy, dark red dress for the dinner scene in Act II, a foreshadow of the blood to come. The next morning, she appears in a white cotton nightgown, apparently feeling cleansed of the threat from Richard, now that she's killed him. Her final appearance after Lucy has left is in black and white solids - no grey areas here. Lucy, who appears in fairly strong colors, (dark red, navy blue) in most of the play, shows up the morning after in greys and neutrals, telegraphing the loss of Richard by the draining of color in here clothes.

Rather than lapse into a greek tragedy, it's too bad Ms. Rebeck didn't apply the same skill to Act II that was shown in Act I. Even with the dialogue feeling a little stilted from time to time (just about everyone speaks in full and grammatically correct sentences), a more realistic ending would make this a much more powerful piece. Explore the ramifications of Richard and Helen reconciling and Lucy's reaction. Explore why Nate developed such a twisted attachment to his mother. Explore why Erica completed college and simply returned home. We don't get any of those question addressed.

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