nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 12, 2007
The compelling reason to see Flags is Chris Mulkey's immensely intelligent and moving performance as an ordinary man who finds himself pushed to a kind of unavoidable and unorthodox heroism. Mulkey's portrayal of Eddie Desmopoulis is homely, fully-dimensional, and unexpectedly quixotic. He's the kind of rugged American individualist that used to get celebrated in our literature and drama with some regularity, but doesn't get seen so much nowadays.
Flags, which is written by the pseudonymous Jane Martin, tells the story of Eddie, his wife Em, and their 26-year-old son Frankie. They live somewhere in the American heartland, and when we first meet them they are planning for the return of elder son Carter from the war in Iraq. What they receive instead is the news that his tour of duty has been extended. A month or so later comes more bad news: Carter has been killed. When the specific circumstances of his death are finally revealed to Eddie and Em, Eddie's rage becomes uncontrollable. He displays the flag that Carter was holding when he was killed on the roof of the house, but he displays it upside-down, which is a universal distress signal or, otherwise, a sign of grave disrespect.
It was always clear to me, from Mulkey's intense performance, that Eddie is severely distressed. But Eddie's neighbors don't read it that way, and soon there are demonstrators on his lawn, protesting his upside-down flag. Things escalate, rapidly and horribly, from here.
Martin's plotting is problematic in Flags: she puts Eddie on the cover of Time as a new American folk hero but fails to dispatch any of the support mechanisms that he'd undoubtedly receive after that kind of publicity. (I kept wondering: where's Geraldo, or Anderson Cooper? Where's the ACLU?) Further, Martin pushes the play into the realm of classical tragedy, making me think that we're supposed to regard his refusal to take down the offending flag as a sign of hubris rather than one of strong principle. Is that what Martin really thinks? I don't think it's what Mulkey believes about his character; it's not what got telegraphed to me, anyway.
For me, the interesting commentary in the play has to do not with what Eddie does but rather with the reactions of just about everyone else in the story. America has become a place where tolerance, let alone respect, for the beliefs of others gets shakier and more tenuous every day. Imposing our beliefs of others has replaced it. I love that Flags seems to take this new American Way to task. In a nation of free individuals, we must learn to embrace the different points of view that others present, not demand that they back away from them. Flags touches on this notion, and it's a valuable perspective that we need to be reminded of.
But a lot of what happens in the play feels contrived, such as a long-time crush that Eddie's friend Benny supposedly has on Em; and a great chunk of the play, in which a chorus comments on events and portrays various news media personalities delivering mundane and/or trivializing news headlines on TV monitors, is both overwrought and boringly derivative.
The cast includes Karen Landry in the thankless role of Em, Ryan Johnston (a co-producer of the show) as Frankie (he's quite good, matching Mulkey nearly note for note), and Stephen Mendillo as Benny. Henry Wishcamper, the director, elicits uneven performances from the rest of the ensemble, and is utterly defeated by the space—Theatre C at 59E59, which is barely a theatre at all, but instead a square room in which seats on risers have been placed. This play does not fit here at all; no play with more than two or three actors comfortably can. I know that economics are an issue, but surely Johnston and his co-producer Steven Klein could have afforded a more suitable venue. It comes close to defeating the production, and that's a shame because, flaws and all, Flags is a show worth seeing, for the issues it raises and for the sterling work of Mulkey as a man who refuses to surrender his beliefs.