A soldier’s imminent homecoming is delayed when his tour of duty in Iraq is extended; three months later, he is killed by a sniper. “Flags,” Jane Martin’s play receiving its New York premiere at 59E59, is torn from the headlines. Just this week, the Senate defeated a bill that would reduce the length of service, which has been increasing since the day that “mission accomplished” sign was first unfurled. So why does this play seem so outdated?
The heartbreak of Eddie Desmopoulis (Chris Mulkey) turns to outrage when he learns his tank-commander son was assigned to garbage collection in Baghdad. Celebrating the completion of a new sanitation facility, Carter climbed on the roof to raise an Iraqi flag and was shot.
Eddie draws a distinction between being killed in the line of duty and dying in what he sees as out of the line of duty. When the commander-in-chief calls with his condolences, Eddie finds himself berating the president as he speaks on a cell phone in the front yard. This one-sided conversation is conveniently captured on video by a visiting TV reporter, one thing leads to another, and Eddie lands on the cover of Time magazine (“Man Berates President”).
The stubborn patriarch hangs an American flag from his roof — upside down. This becomes a symbol of protest, supported by liberal-minded individuals but castigated as a unpatriotic act by the self-proclaimed patriotic, leading to protests, barroom brawls, bullet fuselages and — in the end — death. (Eddie is not named Desmopoulis for nothing; the playwright gives us a Greek chorus-full of Equity members doubling in various roles.)
Why isn’t the drama more affecting? Watching the wheels grind along, it gradually becomes apparent. Martin’s play seems to be a cry of anguish for Cindy Sheehan, and it might have been powerful stuff when Sheehan was camping out on the president’s ranchero. Sheehan first started her protest in 2004; that was only three years ago, but public perceptions have changed quickly.
“Flags” — with grocery clerks stopping the protagonists on the street and spitting at them — doesn’t grip audiences, not today anyway. The play was first produced in 2004 at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis, followed by a 2005 stint at the Odyssey in Los Angeles. Two of the young actors double as producers of the limited New York engagement.
The production is admirable, the players are earnest, and the L.A.-based leads — Chris Mulkey as Eddie and Karen Landry as his wife Em — do an impressive job in the almost stageless small space at 59E59. So do the other main actors, Ryan Johnston and Stephen Mendillo.
But they are not helped by the playwright. Jane Martin has written numerous plays since 1981, although she has never appeared publicly (nor, apparently, attended a rehearsal). There are those who say she is in fact Jon Jory, the former artistic director at the Actors Theater of Louisville who has staged many of her plays.
In any case, the play features some exceedingly fine language, but the writing is clumsy. The action is segmented into what seem like dozens of brief vignettes, with far too many bodies for what is basically a four-character play. Mulkey and Landry are especially game, but they have to deliver the same speeches over and over again.
Martin seems to aspire here to “All My Sons.” But the results fail to hold our attention for 80 minutes.