Funny about significance: Strive for it and it flies away, leaving you with a mass of trivialities on your hands. Shun it and it comes running, sneaking its weightiness into your slightest gesture. In The Water’s Edge, the prolific Theresa Rebeck strains for significance: Her plot is an attempt to revisit Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in contemporary terms, recalling O’Neill’s similar attempt in his 1931 Mourning Becomes Electra. But unlike O’Neill, Rebeck doesn’t seem certain of why she should be adapting the ancient tragedy: She omits both the original’s political dimension and its complex view of human relations. Aeschylus’s feuding husband and wife are the king and queen of a Greek state, which is at war over an act that has dishonored the wife’s family as much as the husband’s: Helen of Troy is Clytemnestra’s sister. Aeschylus also shows the wife committing unforgivable wrongs to match those that have turned her against her spouse: Clytemnestra, unlike Rebeck’s heroine, has taken a lover, a cousin of Agamemnon’s with some family scores of his own to settle. And while Aeschylus says nothing about how wise or beneficent a ruler Agamemnon might have been, the city elders who cower before Clytemnestra don’t appear to be living under the optimal conditions of Greek democracy.
In Rebeck’s play, all of this vanishes: Instead of Clytemnestra, we get Helen (Kate Burton)—the name is typical of Rebeck’s klutzy stabs at irony—who has been separated from her Wall Street hotshot husband, Richard (Tony Goldwyn), for 17 years, since their eldest child drowned. In spite of which, Helen has clung to their Greek Revival home (Richard’s childhood home, not hers) by the New England lake where the drowning occurred. Their two younger children (Austin Lysy and Mamie Gummer) are now grown, but still live with Helen, dependent emotionally on her and materially on the cash that Richard’s accountants send every month. They also obediently follow Helen’s lead in avoiding the lake, which seems pretty unlikely for adolescents growing up in such a setting. But then, everything in The Water’s Edge seems unlikely from the first moment, in which Richard, having abruptly decided to come home after 17 years—with his new girlfriend (Katharine Powell) in tow, of course—starts waxing poetic about the natural beauty of the place. Since Rebeck’s not an innately poetic writer, the wax hardens in ungainly lumps. The audience starts to pity Goldwyn, stuck with this baseless lump of a role, well before he has to start reminiscing about how his father used to love to bathe outdoors and pulls the tarp off the extremely improbable bathtub that instantly makes anyone who had to read the Oresteia in college start wincing. (At least Aeschylus had the sense to keep the bathtub in which Agamemnon gets murdered safely offstage.)
Rebeck’s parade of improbabilities grows from wince to wince. The fatal bathtub isn’t half as absurd as the blunt maneuvering by which Helen gets rid of Richard’s girlfriend so that the murder can take place, which isn’t anywhere near as absurd as the lengthy post-murder scene about getting rid of the blood and not phoning the police. And even that isn’t as absurd as asking us to believe in a super-rich guy who still wants nothing more than to settle back in with the wife and the kids he hasn’t even seen for nearly two decades. O’Neill may have thrown out the political and moral context in which Aeschylus’s tragedy occurs, but at least he replaced it with a psychological dynamic that could drive a family to an equivalent lethal destiny. (He also gave his characters a high social position in the community and set his action during the Civil War, which put the story’s violence in context.) However gussied up with tidbits of gag writing and gassy puffs of fake poetry, the events of The Water’s Edge often make no sense at all. Rebeck’s plays have always been marred by facile contrivance, but they’ve rarely shown the threadbare factitiousness of this one. Puzzling as it is to me that her work gets produced at all, I can’t imagine why any theater, with apparently so many Rebeck scripts to choose from, would pick this unworkable item. Will Frears’s direction is, as usual, careless on matters of detail—after lying down fully clothed in an old bathtub in somebody’s yard, wouldn’t you brush yourself off when you got up?—but he’s gotten his five actors to push resolutely past all the absurdities in the material: Burton and Lysy do particularly well, holding tightly to whatever emotional reality they can find.
The two parental figures in Henry Green’s 1950 novel Nothing—ex-lovers, both widowed, who find that their respective children want to marry—resemble the parents in The Water’s Edge in their epic selfishness. But Green (1905–1973) had the wisdom not to overweight, with would-be tragic significance, the story of how they thoroughly screw up the kids’ lives by pleasing themselves. The story is just the story, told briskly in Andrea Hart’s terse, pointed condensation of Green’s dialogue, its contents complete once you get used to hearing what lies behind the characters’ clipped, unforthcoming remarks. The effect is a dry, light British dessert version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with bubbly ironies replacing the bitter sauce of moral anguish. It’s made even drier by the staging (redirected by Philip Prowse from Robert David MacDonald’s original), in which almost every scene occurs over a luncheon or tea table. There are occasional anomalies (I could live without the ostentatiously symbolic dead bird), but little to quarrel with: The acting, staging, and writing all flow into each other too evenly for that. Pete Ashmore and Candida Benson create a touchingly drippy pair of young lovers, while Sophie Ward, as the principal female conniver, makes the crooked intent behind her seeming straightforwardness deliciously transparent.