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Paulanne Simmons

"Surface to Air" Almost Gets Off the Ground

"Surface to Air"
Directed by James Naughton
Symphony Space's Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
Broadway at 95th Street
Opened July 18, 2007
Tues. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m.
$36-$46 (212) 864-5400
Closes Aug. 5, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 17, 2007.

James Colby and Cady Huffman. Photo by Ric Kallaher.

Thirty years after the Viet Nam war, Rob is finally coming home to his family. Only he's coming home in a small box carried by a U.S. Airman.

David Epstein's new play, "Surface to Air," premiering at Symphony Space's Peter Jay Sharp Theatre as part of its Summer Stock on Broadway series, is the poignant story of a Long Island family finally coming to terms with the death of their brother and son. The dialogue is often brilliant, James Naughton's direction is crisp and masterful, and the cast is on the mark, individually and together. But the play is not nearly as effective as it might have been had Naughton not let his drama get entangled in subplots that take over the play and dilute its message.

Rob's mother (Lois Smith), called Princess by her doting husband Hank (Larry Bryggman) has never recovered from her son's death, but despite her questionable sanity, she offers the sanest lines of the play when she says, "We're not an easy family, but there's love beneath the surface." Hank is a lot like Archie Bunker grown old and a little more likable.

Rob's brother, Eddie (James Colby), is a ne'er-do-well Viet Nam vet who has several unsuccessful marriages and failed business ventures behind him. His newest wife, Magdalena, is a former maid from Belize, and the business they are contemplating (with the help of Eddie's father), is a bagel store with a Latin touch. His sister, Terri (Caddy Huffman), is a high-powered Hollywood executive married to an independent documentary filmmaker named Andrew (Bruce Altman). Unlike the other men in the play, he has never served in the military. His wife insists he suffers from depression but never explains why or how she knows.

This is great characterization, and it's all laid out in the first two-thirds of the play. The problem is these characters are so busy dealing with their current entanglements that when Rob (Mark J. Sullivan), or rather his ghostlike presence, appears intermittently outside the house to recount his experiences in the war, it seems more like an intrusion than an intrinsic part of the play.

Cast Members in "Surface to Air." Photo by Ric Kallaher.

When "Surface to Air" does finally pay more attention to the Viet Nam war, its controversial nature and its effects on this family, the shift in mood makes it seem almost as if one is watching a different play.

Eddie's tirade against the war and the people who made it, his description of the two buddies he visits at the VA hospital, "Three arms, one leg, and a pair of testicles," can tear anyone's heart out. And Hank's anguished account of all the years he hoped against hope his son would miraculously return has the same effect. Colby and Bryggman are superb, and these are the high points of the show and the core of its meaning.

What's more, James Noone supports the show with a set that shows the family's home nestled in and isolated from the rest of the world.

With all this going for "Surface to Air," it's a shame that Epstein subverts his own work with a too generous impulse to tell too much. If this play went back to the drawing board, it might one day re-emerge as a masterpiece.


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