A professor of stage design, seated in the seventh row of Symphony Space, inspected the living-room set arrayed before him and quipped that if any of his students submitted a layout with a sofa plopped front and center, he’d fail them. David Epstein’s Surface to Air doesn’t deserve an F. But the trite set does prefigure the drama that unfolds. As the play progresses, one could almost tick off the various actions, like so many items on a shopping list. Booze? Check. Accusation? Check. Tears? Check. Fist fight? Check. Fragile rapprochement? Check.
The play concerns the repatriation of the eldest son of a Long Island family, in the form of ashes and bone. Thirty years previously, Rob died in the Vietnam War. His grave has since been located and his ashes returned to Long Island. In addition to his aged parents (Lois Smith and Larry Bryggman), Rob’s siblings return home for the event. Each brings a spouse, a temperate outsider to observe the family conflagrations. And just beyond the house lingers the spirit of Rob (Mark J. Sullivan), still clad in his Air Force uniform. Occasionally, he interrupts the domestic action to relate the circumstances of his death.
Epstein assigns each character a profession and a couple of quirks (Mom’s germ-ophobic; studio executive Sis answers her phone with “Speak to me!”). Yet he stops short of fully enfleshing them. Director James Naughton, however, has assembled a remarkable cast: If the actors can’t rejuvenate the material, they do help disguise a multitude of dramaturgical sins. Only the delightful Cady Huffman seems miscast. As the tough-as-nails exec, she’s tough as a plush toy. If only her character sang!
But the fine actors can’t wholly plaster over the familiarity of the script’s structure or some of its more bizarre contentions. Late in the play, son Eddie (James Colby), who also served in Vietnam, explodes in anger over how September 11 has replaced Vietnam in the public consciousness: “Now, after the terrorists, nobody cares who’s layin’ around for 30 years.” He continues, “It was not Iwo Jima and the Coral Sea. And it wasn’t ground zero. It was piss and shit. And nobody wants to talk about it anymore.” Eddie ought to relax. Few days pass when some columnist doesn’t compare our involvement in Iraq to Vietnam. Surface to Air may not merit much chat, but the war it concerns still occasions plenty.