Joan Marcus
Jason Clark
November 18, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

A simple photo of Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 devastation in NYC could inform dozens of harrowing, emotionally resonant family stories. Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water—a new play performing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II through Dec. 7—ekes out one such tale, but with several decades’ worth of hoary melodrama subbing for the resonance.

The Murphy clan has been reunited after Sandy has torn through Staten Island, and Marty and Mary (Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O?Connell) intend on rebuilding their pummeled home, despite a looming government buyout. Older, responsible son Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker) is all for the buyout so his parents can get back on their feet, but his Manhattan modernism clashes with their stubborn traditionalism. Younger son Brian (Tom Pelphrey, doing a strange, goofy riff on Ratso Rizzo) is a former addict and ex-con, and often favored by his bullheaded father, the same father who, it turns out, has a questionable relationship with the very community he’s trying to unite.

Instead of piercing the fragilities of this family’s loyalties in a specific, original way, By the Water opts for clichés; you know the play is set in Staten Island, because people tawk like this and wear baseball caps and chunky scarves. (And, if you’re a former jailbird, of course you work at an Olive Garden.)

The cast is similarly uneven, with some members giving rather formalized performances while others are in a far more naturalistic mode, though Circle Mirror Transformation‘s Deirdre O’Connell—bless her—is positively incapable of inauthenticity and, per usual, steals the show. But the level of Arthur Miller-like anguish that befalls the Murphys is never dramatically satisfying. Instead, you get something much closer in tone to a Very Special Episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. C


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