Surface to Air
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
July 18, 2007
In Surface to Air, Symphony Space brings a new play based around one family's brief and conflicted reunion. It follows the family on the day that the long-lost remains of its eldest son, a pilot during the Vietnam War, are finally returned by the military.
Tony Award winner James Naughton directs this family drama, penned by playwright David Epstein. I didn't count the number of Tonys won by the cast members and design team combined, but suffice to say, those involved in the production are a seasoned and accomplished group. And though Epstein himself hasn't written for Broadway, much of his cast is recognizable from there (as well as TV and movies), including veterans Lois Smith and Larry Bryggman, not to mention Cady Huffman (an original cast member from The Producers).
The set, which the audience gets a thorough chance to examine before the show, is highly detailed and attended to. It is a slice of life, designed by James Noone, down to the rips in the family quilt, one square of which contains an American flag, while another is a block which says "NAVY." It well prepares the viewers for what turns out to be an almost altogether naturalistic drama, also enhanced by the picture-perfect costumes of Laurie Churba.
The heads of the family are a germ-phobic, past-obsessed mother and her devoted husband, the seemingly innocuous father of the household. The two grown children return, along with their partners, as does the ghost of the eldest son, a physical presence unacknowledged by any of the family—who serves as a sometime narrator. We soon learn that the patriarch isn't quite as benign as he seems: a mess of contradictions, and a passionate appreciator of geography, but who believes concurrently in aggressive military action in which America needs to exert her superior and violent force in the world at all times.
I found myself asking why exactly this play, a quaint and naturalistic drama which in many ways seems as if it might have been written decades ago, is being produced now, and why in New York City. A few scattered instances (references to the World Trade Center and Al Queda among them) suggest that Epstein hoped to make some connections between the moral murkiness and lasting effects of the Vietnam War and our own current state of military interventions in Iraq and other countries. However these connections are never firmly drawn, nor is a strong message delivered with regard to what might be learned from the past, which the characters are still clearly haunted by. The playwright doesn't owe his audience a "teaching play" or even one with a discernable message. But it seems in this case as if Epstein had hoped that parallels would come naturally, which they do not.
For all its potential, the production comes across as a bit one-sided. The dialogue sometimes lacks a naturalness, sounding more like platitudes than interactions, and the performances seem to suffer from it. Naughton's direction doesn't much complicate Epstein's straightforward script, nor does it bring to the front much parallelism between the times of war then and now. However, this may not have been the intent of Epstein and Naughton at all. And, in spite of some of the script's shortcomings, compelling performances are turned in by many of the cast members, especially Bruce Altman and James Colby.
Perhaps in this show, I was looking for some message or meaning beyond the script. Perhaps it is more personal and contained than I thought, and does not aspire to have a political relevance. Or perhaps Surface to Air is simply aimed at another generation, many of whom in the audience did seem to enjoy the show thoroughly. I would also be remiss not to mention again this show's powerhouse cast, and that this is certainly a rare chance for anyone hoping to catch some performances from well-known Broadway and Hollywood talents in a much more intimate space.