Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eight Actors in Search of a Good Play

"Surface to Air" at Symphony Space, July 21, 2007

David Epstein's play about a family welcoming home the remains of a son killed in Vietnam 30 years earlier tries hard, but doesn't quite make the grade.

Director James Naughton has assembled an excellent cast including Lois Smith, Larry Bryggman and Cady Huffman, but their efforts go unrewarded in this 80 minute ramble.

Rob (Mark J. Sullivan), the oldest son, was killed when his plane was shot down in Vietnam in 1971. His brother Eddie (James Colby), also did time in the war, but survived with the usual battle scars. Sister Terri (Ms. Huffman) has also suffered, but seems to have distanced herself from the deeper wounds. And of course, not all of those wounds were inflicted by the war. WWII veteran father Hank (Mr. Bryggman) delivered many of those as well after the loss of his first-born. He also suffers his own scars since his wife Princess (Ms. Smith) hasn't been quite right since Rob's death was reported.

As the play begins, Eddie arrives with a surprise new wife in tow, Magdalena (Marisa Echeverria) an immigrant from Belize whom he met when they were both working at a local hotel. As he announces his marriage each time (again??) we figure out that Eddie has had some relationship issues. The fragile Princess is immediately won over by Magdalena, contrary to how it's gone with previous children-in-law. Terri is a successful entertainment executive, married to a less-successful Jewish documentarian.

Present to the proceedings is Rob's ghost, lurking about outside James Noone's very nice set. Mr. Sullivan has a series of monologues that ought to tie things together better than they do, but the words he's been given are not up to the task. Likewise, Eddie's insecurities are a frequent non-sequitur manner in which the plot careens.

It's a shame that such a talented cast didn't get better material to work with. Mr. Naughton seems to have done all he can with such a limited source, but even the best directing can't fix bad writing. Each actor is working as hard as he/she can, but to no avail. Ms. Huffman seems to suffer the worst, miscast as a high-power exec. It's only when the story comes back to the family that she shows what she's capable of. Her "business" scenes fall particularly flat. Mr. Bryggman tries to walk the fine line between aging and angry father but can't maintain the balance without better material. Ms. Smith manages the most success, but then again, she spends the most time offstage so she's not saddled with as much as her fellow actors.

For the record, this was my first visit to the Symphony Space theatre - quite an impressive facility.

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