A play by Beau Willimon
Directed by Henry Wishcamper
Starring Mia Barron, Charles Borland, Aaron Michael Davies, Brian Hutchison, Maggie Lacey, Jeremy Sisto
Performances through December 5, 2010
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I
131 West 55th Street
In the spellbinding opening of Beau Willimon’s Spirit Control, two St. Louis air traffic controllers try landing a small plane being flown by an hysterical woman after the pilot has a heart attack. One controller, Adam, does a superb job calming the woman, Maxine, and giving her precise emergency-landing instructions. For several minutes, we’re on the edge of our seats, enthralled by this life-or-death situation that, despite Adam’s heroics, ends badly.
After this spectacular opening, Spirit Control goes into a tailspin and never recovers. It may be that Willimon wanted to slow things down to the point of banality to throw the opening into sharp relief as he shows how Adam deals with his failure to bring Maxine down safely in 1985, causing him to spiral out of control in the ensuing quarter-century.
Willimon, however, never plausibly explores Adam’s life after the tragic incident. His consecutive scenes with different people (FAA investigator; wife Jess; woman he meets in bar; youngest son Tommy; former colleague Karl) underline the play’s schematic nature, especially when it’s established that the woman Adam meets is also named Maxine (strange enough), and that she wears the same short dress whenever she appears (stranger still).
Spirit Control ultimately loses complete control when the FAA rep returns in 2010 tell Adam what kind of life Maxine lived before that fateful morning near the airport. Or did she? By the time the final scene--a mirrors of the opening, only inside-out or upside-down or whatever--arrives, Willimon has written himself into a corner, and what began as a quietly penetrating study of guilt and grief ends up a Rubik’s cube of metaphysical claptrap.
Still, Willimon has an ear for ringingly truthful dialogue, especially in the concisely-written scene between Adam and Tommy a dozen years after he left his family, as Tommy rebuffs his estranged father’s attempts to reconnect. Henry Wishcamper’s fluid staging is highlighted by a strong supporting cast, from Mia Barron’s sexy Maxine to Aaron Michael Davies’ sympathetic Tommy.
But best of all is Jeremy Sisto, whose Adam is a compelling bundle of contradictions as he becomes a failed husband and father. Adam is onstage for the entire play, and Sisto, giving a genuinely brave turn in an underwritten, ultimately symbolic role, guides Spirit Control throughout its intriguing but bumpy ride.