Theaters do not feature reclining seats or tray tables or plastic-encased blankets. Your usher will not sport a natty uniform or pour you a club soda. Possibly the concession stand will offer peanuts, but these are not complimentary.
You’d never confuse a theater with an airplane. Yet in the dazzling opening scene of Beau Willimon’s Spirit Control at Manhattan Theatre Club, you feel yourself transported, inhabiting both the control tower at the St. Louis airport where Adam Wyatt (Jeremy Sisto) attempts to field a distress call and the cockpit of the distressed plane itself.
The scene begins as two air traffic controllers, Adam and Karl (Brian Hutchison), rib each other as they direct planes to various runways with quick bursts of numbers and letters and airport slang. But the scene alters abruptly when the voice of a panicked woman (Mia Barron) surges over the radio. “He’s not breathing,” she says of the pilot. “I think he’s having a heart attack.” Though the woman has never flown a plane before, Adam talks her through landing a Cessna, establishing rapport, easing her fears, providing her with straightforward instructions. What occurs in the next several minutes, which it would be churlish to reveal, will shadow the rest of Adam’s life.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the play, which charts Adam’s decline over 25 years, never climbs to anywhere near the level of Willimon’s thrilling opener. Dialogue becomes strained and formulaic, the narrative diffuse. Just as in his earlier play Farragut North, Willimon’s scenes between men far exceed those involving women, who come across as mere male fantasies—precisely what some of them are. Sisto, as an average guy forced to confront the unknowable, gives a powerful performance. The other roles are severely underwritten. Instead of helping his actors to flesh them out, director Henry Wishcamper has instead busied himself with infelicitous stage pictures and useless video sequences.
The first 20 minutes of Spirit Control promise something special in the air. The rest is one slow crash landing.