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Some of the early reviews of David Epstein’s new play Surface to Air have complained that its Vietnam war storyline makes insufficient parallels to America’s current conflict in Iraq. But you’d have to be pretty dim not to watch this story of a Long Island, New York, family and its arguments over Vietnam and fail to connect the dots to the larger theme: the US makes worse the strife between indigenous factions in a country halfway around the world.
Set shortly after 9/11, Epstein’s 80-minute play centres around a middle-class family as it grieves for one of its sons; he was killed in Vietnam but his remains, long missing, have suddenly been found. The dead man’s brother, Eddie, is also a Vietnam vet, and he is bitter about how quickly America forgot survivors of that war.
Eddie’s point of view is in conflict with that of the family’s father, Hank, whose grief comes across powerfully in outbursts of rage against the American war machine. Hank, played brilliantly by Larry Bryggman, represents what has become a familiar portrait of America’s Greatest Generation veterans: their experience in the second world war was so unspeakably horrible that they have rarely been able to express it.
Hank’s unleashed feeling has something substantial beneath it. By contrast, the complaints of his daughter, Terri, a movie executive whom the playwright makes a walking compendium of Hollywood clichés, are almost laughable in their flimsiness.
The family’s matriarch, Princess, is played affectingly by Lois Smith. Smith’s performance two seasons ago in a revival of Horton Smith’s A Trip to Bountiful was lavishly acclaimed, and yet I always have the feeling that New Yorkers undervalue her.
This production has been professionally staged by James Naughton. Normally I wish a director had encouraged his playwright to trim; in this case, I wished for more material, to flesh out some of the relationships and to make the story feel more than just an occasion for military veterans to argue. Even so, the cast is impeccable.
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