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A CurtainUp Review
Surface to Air

It was not Iwo Jima and Coral Sea. And it wasn't Ground Zero. It was piss and shit. And nobody wants to talk about it anymore. . .There was no glory there, it was disgrace. — --Eddie
Lois Smith in  Surface to Air
Lois Smith in Surface to Air (Photo: Ric Kallaher)
Despite the abject failure of George W. Bush's war in Iraq, the Vietnam War remains persona non grata among U.S. conflicts. It is still the big war that the American government lost, the war that continues to spur antagonism between those who fought in it and those who stayed at home. It remains an on-going source of our country's cultural and political battles.

So it is in David Epstein's stimulating drama Surface to Air which is receiving its world premiere at Symphony Space—the second entry in that Upper West Side venue's Summer Stock on Broadway series. Set on Long Island shortly after 9/11, Surface to Air dramatizes the tension within a family that has gathered to receive and bury the ashes of the oldest son. His body has only recently been recovered in Vietnam, where the bomber he was piloting crashed thirty years earlier.

On the wide proscenium stage at Symphony Space, James Noone's living room set suggests a household that has barely moved forward since 1971, when Rob (Mark J. Sullivan) died. Princess (Lois Smith), Rob's white-haired mother, spends her time sitting in an armchair, listening to a long-ago audio tape of her kids singing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" while her husband Hank (Larry Bryggman) lovingly waits on her. Rob himself appears wearing a torn U.S. Air Force uniform and splashed with an otherworldly white light. Standing on the deck outside the house, he talks about his parents and tells the story of his final, catastrophic mission.

Rob's younger brother and sister have tried to move beyond the tragedy. Eddie (James Colby), who also fought in Vietnam, became an alcoholic but has now found a new, ebullient young new wife in Magdalena (Marisa Echeverria). Terri (Cady Huffman) has become a successful, if typically hyper, Hollywood deal-maker and is happily married to comparatively mellow Andrew (Bruce Altman), who makes documentary films.

Epstein, who writes movie (Palookaville) and television scripts (China Rose) as well as stage plays, has created an engaging, if conventional, drama. Surface to Air offers passionate conflict and a stimulating range of characters, and while a couple of them are clichés—Hank often sounds like your better-dead-than-Red anti-Communist and Terri as though she stepped out of a sitcom—all together they provide an intriguing mix. Even if Eddie's arguments with his father rehash pros and cons that we've heard for years, Epstein inserts an unusual ingredient in the person of Andrew, who escaped the draft but now longs, to Eddie's fury, for the awful experience that the Vietnam vet desperately wants to forget. Finally, by setting his play after 9/11 but before the American assault on Iraq, he allows the characters' various perspectives to color the conflict still to come.

James Naughton's direction feels somewhat stiff, but the mostly excellent cast fleshes out their characters and the drama's array of intertwining relationships. Smith imbues Princess with an affecting blend of humor and pathos, and Colby and Echeverria create marvelous chemistry onstage. Huffman, who won a Tony Award for her hilarious performance as sexy Swedish Ulla in The Producers, could lower the shrillness a notch, and the family arguments occasionally escalate to a point where everyone sounds as though they are simply yelling. Still, this sturdy production illuminates Epstein's point, and a trenchant one it is: war waged to serve politicians' egos is a horrific waste of human treasure.

Surface to Air
By David Epstein
Directed by James Naughton
Cast: Bruce Altman (Andrew); Larry Bryggman (Hank); James Colby (Eddie); Brian Delate (Airman); Marisa Echeverria (Magdalena); Cady Huffman (Terri); Lois Smith (Princess); Mark J. Sullivan (Rob) Set design: James Noone
Costume design: Laurie Chruba
Lighting design: Clifton Taylor
Sound design: Ray Schilke
Running time: around 80 minutes
Symphony Space's Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Broadway at 95th Street, 212-864-5400.
Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00 p.m.
From 7/11/07 to 8/05/07; opening 7/18/07
Tickets: $46;
Reviewed by Alexis Greene July 17, 2007
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