The Water's Edge
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 13, 2006
Every writer makes a mistake from time to time. It's the nature of the job. Sometimes they can't grow unless they make some big honking ones. With that in mind, I was still disappointed in Theresa Rebeck's new play, The Water's Edge. Not because it finds her moving in a different, more serious direction than her previous work. And not because it feels like a transitional play, since she's in new territory. No, I found The Water's Edge disappointing because it ignores basic tenets of dramatic writing: common sense and logic. There is very little about the story and the characters that is plausible. How does Rebeck expect the audience to buy into her premise when almost none of it is believable? From a writer as seasoned and talented as she is, it gives one pause to wonder.
The Water's Edge begins with Richard, a wealthy businessman, and his much younger girlfriend, Lucy, visiting the lakeside home he grew up in. Richard hasn't been there in 17 years, and we soon learn why: his ex-wife, Helen, still lives there with their two grown kids, Erica and Nate. Richard says he's returned to reclaim the house, but there's much more on his mind than just that—he wants a full-fledged family reconciliation. That won't be easy considering the grudge Helen holds against him: his alleged involvement (at least, as far as she's concerned) in the long-ago death of their third child.
All throughout The Water's Edge, I found myself questioning everything about it. Richard claims he wanted to see the kids the entire time he was exiled by Helen. So, why didn't he? People who are as rich and powerful as his character seems to be can pretty much do whatever they want, despite anyone's protests. Why does it take him 17 years to try reconciling with Helen if that's what he wanted all along? And, if that's his plan from the start, why does he bring his girlfriend with him?! As written, Richard never comes across as the sharpest tool in the shed. For instance, his reconciliation scene with Helen culminates with him stripping naked in the backyard, and initiating sex in an old bathtub—in full view of anyone who cares to step outside and take a peek! It's amazing that he thinks any of this is a good idea.
I also had a hard time believing how fresh Helen's ages-old pain still was. Get over it, already! Then there's the obvious sexual/romantic tension between Nate and Lucy that never gets followed up on. I have to say I was surprised when The Water's Edge didn't end the way I thought it would: with Nate and Lucy in the bloom of fresh, new love, and the ex-spouses working out an amicable (if unconventional) agreement over possession of the house. Instead, Rebeck gives The Water's Edge a tragic conclusion that is shocking in its randomness. To give it away would be to spoil the only real surprise the play has. Suffice to say that the ending is completely unearned because it feels so arbitrary—a case, perhaps, of the author forcing her play the way she wants it to go instead of listening to where it wants to take her.
Director Will Frears does the best he can with this material, but the script eventually tells on him. Thankfully, the acting is mostly good. Kate Burton gives an impassioned performance as Helen, nearly legitimizing a character that is ultimately too bitter and mean-spirited to be interesting. Unfortunately, Tony Goldwyn is too wooden, both physically and vocally, to be much of a match for her. Austin Lysy is authentic as the slow-witted Nate, especially when he almost pulls off an awkward Jekyll-and-Hyde personality change late in Act II. And, as Lucy, Katharine Powell makes the most of the play's requisite thankless role. But, it's Mamie Gummer who makes the evening's strongest impression. As the angry and volatile Erica, she steals the show with her well-timed, expletive-filled comic outbursts.
I can't say I know what Rebeck is aiming for with The Water's Edge. Whatever point she's trying to make eludes me. It's buried somewhere in the mire of a play that strikes me as complete mistake. Hopefully, The Water's Edge has served its purpose in the larger scheme of Rebeck's artistic growth, and she'll rebound nicely with her next work. If not, then let's just wish that her rebound comes sooner rather than later.