Chris Mulkey and Stephen Mendillo in Flags
(© Philip Johnson)
Chris Mulkey and Stephen Mendillo in Flags
(© Philip Johnson)
Greek tragedies are filled with depictions of war's impact on the family. In Flags, which is receiving its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters, Jane Martin (the pseudonym for a yet-to-be-revealed playwright) strives for a Middle American equivalent of Greek tragedy, but succeeds only in creating a haphazard, if timely, melodrama.

As the play opens, Em and Eddie Desmopoulis (Karen Landry and Chris Mulkey) are eagerly preparing to welcome their son Carter home from his extended tour of duty as a tank commander in Iraq. Their excitement, however, is curtailed when their neighbor Benny (Stephen Mendillo) arrives, telling them of a report he's just heard on the news: Carter's unit will be staying in that war-torn country for an additional four months. Em immediately fears that this might be the period in which Carter will become one of the thousands of American soldiers killed in Iraq, and her fears are realized within a month.

What she cannot imagine, though, is the tragedy that Carter's death will set in motion on the home front. When Eddie inadvertently hangs an American flag upside-down in front of their home, the neighbors and local politicians are outraged. In his grief, Eddie resolutely refuses to correct his mistake, and in doing so finds himself in the spotlight of the national and international media.

There's undeniable power in Em and Eddie's story, but Martin dilutes it needlessly with tangential plot elements. For example, jealousy flares over Em's friendly closeness with Benny, while Eddie attempts repeatedly to reconcile (to no avail) with his other son, Frankie (Ryan Johnston), a recovering drug addict whose temper is as hot as his recovering alcoholic father's. Most distracting to the central story is Martin's Greek chorus, a quintet of dark suited media figures who represent both the vapidity and manipulative (almost God-like) nature of broadcast media. Throughout Flags, this group appears and interrupts the action, making grandiose pronouncements about the nature of war.

While these sections are often wince-inducing in their artiness, there are moments of true poignancy to be found in the production, generally whenever Landry is center stage, delivering a carefully nuanced performance as Em. Equally impressive is Johnston's turn as her slacker son, a young man whose capacity for compassion is almost as powerful as his temper. Conversely, Mulkey and Mendillo turn in curiously wooden performances.

There are also a number of intriguing cameo turns from the actors in the chorus. Steve Klein imbues an army chaplain with a certain oiliness that intrigues, and Yvans Jourdain gives passionate performances as both an opportunistic congressman and a neighbor enraged by Eddie's "unpatriotic" display.

As Eddie spirals out of control through encounters with these men and others, director Henry Wishcamper's production moves with graceful fluidity, thanks to Kelly Hanson's ingenious set design: two rolling wall units that indicate interiors in front of a handsomely rendered backdrop depicting a cul-de-sac lined with split-level homes. Aaron Rhyne also gives the production a certain level of multi-media flash, incorporating live action video into the proceedings.

Given that President Bush has just announced his plans for the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, there is an unquestionable timeliness to Martin's indictment of the war in Iraq and the media's role in shaping public opinion. Unfortunately, the playwright's overly ambitious and scattershot storytelling undermines the potency of what could have been a devastating human and political drama.