July 25, 2007

In Free Fall with "Surface to Air"

Summer can be a strange time for theater junkies like me and so I got excited when I read that Symphony Space, famous for its Wall to Wall music marathons, Bloomsday celebration, Selected Shorts series of short story readings and the revival of the legendary Thalia art film house, was introducing a new theater series called Summer Stock on Broadway. I particularly loved the fact that the theater, on Broadway and 95th Street, is a short walk from my home. And so I strolled over on Tuesday night to see its inaugural production,
Surface to Air. There are usually crowds of people milling around outside the theater but the street was empty when I walked up to the box office about 10 minutes before curtain time. It was almost as bad inside; fewer than 200 of the 760 seats in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre were filled. Maybe, I thought, people are home reading “Harry Potter” Or maybe there were so few of them because the show has gotten so little publicity. Or maybe it's that a play about a family gathering to receive the remains of a son and brother killed in Vietnam 30 years earlier isn't what people think of when they think of a light summer stock-style evening of theater.

For whatever the reason people didn't turn out, I can't say they were missing much, for
Surface to Air never really gets off the ground. That's certainly not the fault of the cast. Lois Smith and Larry Bryggman as the still-grieving parents squeeze everything they can out of their roles and throw some extra stuff into them as well. There is also good work from Mark J. Sullivan as the ghost of the slain son, James Colby as the surviving son, Marisa Echeverria as his new Latina bride, and Bruce Altman as the husband of the family's only daughter. Only Cady Huffman, stepping outside the musical comedy roles she usually plays, is slightly off as the Hollywood exec daughter. James Naughton's direction gets the job done, as do the set by James Noone, the costumes by Laurie Churba and the lighting by Clifton Taylor. The dead weight here is the play itself. It wants to be a serious exploration of war and patriotism and race and class but playwright David Epstein has bitten off more than he, or we in the audience, can chew. There are too many issues crashing into one another and then unrealistically resolving themselves at the end of the show's 80 intermissionless minutes.

I walked home feeling sad, not about the death of the son, or the implicit comparisons with the war in Iraq but about the fate of the Summer Stock series. The folks at Symphony Space should be applauded for launching their new series with a new show instead of a revival and for showcasing a relatively unknown playwright. But maybe summer is just too strange a time to do it.

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