Perhaps, in all fairness, the script has spent the last few years in a drawer. But setting a play immediately after September 11 and spending significant chunks of its 80 minutes rehashing arguments about the Vietnam War and the merits of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter can't help but lead audiences to come down with a severe case of been-there and done-that.
Set in a middle-class Long Island home, with echoes of Arthur Miller hovering about, Surface to Air concerns a tense family reunion on the day that eldest son Rob's remains are finally being returned, 30 years after his plane was shot down in Vietnam. It's a day that Hank (Larry Bryggman), the family patriarch, and his wife Princess (Lois Smith), who's both physically and mentally frail, have both longed for and dreaded.
Complicating things further, middle child Eddie (James Colby) arrives home with two surprises: his newest wife, Magdalena (Marisa Echeverria), a feisty and smart Hispanic woman, and their plan to open their own business, a bagel shop with Latina food. Completing the family portrait is youngest sister Terri (Cady Huffman), a hotshot Hollywood executive, and her husband, Andrew (Bruce Altman), whom Princess refers to as a "Jewish documentarian." And let's not forget Rob (Mark J. Sullivan, who looks like he just wandered off the set of a soap opera). He's dead, of course, but still stands on the sidelines to repeatedly describe his feelings about what happened on that fateful day in 1971.
To Epstein's credit, he has crafted a believable family dynamic, complete with realistic shouting matches and sibling joshing. Moreover, there's something very heartfelt about the enterprise, as if Epstein had purposely reopened some old wound. But the script is far too diffuse, veering here and there from Terri's inside digs about Hollywood to Hank's bigoted comments about various ethnic groups to Andrew's socially relevant points about the new wave of immigrants in America without ever cohering into a thematic whole. As the lights finally go down, the word "why" lingers in the mind.
The cast certainly does their best with the material. If there's any question that Smith should formally be declared a national treasure, just listen to her gorgeous rendition of an otherwise banal speech about the early years of her marriage. Or watch her final moments, which are close to heartbreaking -- and which could be downright maudlin in another actress' less skilled hands.
Bryggman hands in one of his customarily excellent performances as Hank, playing gentle and rough with equal aptitude. Huffman mines the humor in Terri, while also making clear she's still a little girl trapped in a powerful woman's exterior. As the newly married couple, Colby is poignant, while Echeverria brilliantly manages to create a full-bodied character who wins the audience's heart.
Still, even the work of this valiant ensemble can't stop Surface to Air from too often hitting the ground with a thud.