Just how easy is it to reduce a major 20th-century American figure to a string of clichés? You'll have to ask Garth Wingfield, whose new play Flight gives such a treatment to Charles Lindbergh. However difficult the play was to write, the production at the Lucille Lortel is never difficult to watch; unfortunately, this proves both a good thing and a bad thing.
For Lindbergh was a man whose public life was a mass of contradictions: He shot to fame after successfully completing the first non-stop, solo Transatlantic flight; he lost his first son in a brutal kidnapping, the aftermath of which was relentlessly played out in the press; and he disgraced himself in the eyes of many Americans with a series of questionable comments about Germany's Nazi party and Jewish people in general. Who else, Wingfield asks us to consider, flew so high only to crash so violently?
As he has written the play, and as Nick Corley has directed it, these contradictions never resolve into a satisfying depiction of Lindbergh's inner and outer struggles; the play's flatness of tone renders triumphs and tragedies in generally stolid terms. Flight frequently feels like a TV movie-of-the-week biopic that wants to hit its major plot points and tie them together with supposedly insightful commentary, here about the media's ravenous but necessary presence in everyday life.
So one of Wingfield's characters, listed in the Playbill only as Reporter and played by Brian D'Arcy James, represents the entire media establishment that alternately hurt and helped, but always hounded, Lindbergh (Gregg Edelman) and his wife Anne (Kerry O'Malley). Things start off promising, with James as a TV reporter chronicling Lindbergh's visit to NASA before the moon launch and then morphing into an eager 1920s go-getter both awestruck at Lindbergh's accomplishments and eager to build him into the Next Big Thing.
Yet Wingfield can't maintain this balance of good-guy magic and bad-guy tyranny for the entire play; this reduces the Reporter to a two-dimensional vulture that, until even he is disgusted by Lindbergh's actions leading up to World War II, makes the play shallower rather than deeper. It doesn't help that James seems to be channeling Sidney Falco, the gossip-columnist wannabe he played with gritty glee in the 2002 Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success; the basic idea is the same, but the characters shouldn't be.
Anne is similarly generalized into the woman behind the man, with only a few lines about her writing career included to further establish her character. But O'Malley plays her with warmth and charm that eventually harden into icy ferocity when her husband begins his long downward spiral. Edelman effectively recalls Lindbergh's affable charm and clean-cut looks, but runs into trouble in the second act when his difficulties portraying his character's barely visible subtleties and gradations of emotion in the smaller moments become more crippling to the play.
Edelman's not alone - Wingfield is similarly unable to smoothly depict the arc of Lindbergh's life, and puts very little importance on what happens between the Big Three Events. Lindbergh's courtship with Anne and his willingness to be manipulated by the media are each covered in single scenes; his studies of artificial hearts are glossed over and used primarily to highlight what's lost when his Nazi associations become central to his public life. The projections (by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly), which assign certain scenes names like "Mr. Lindbergh Sleeps In" and "A Tasteful Affair in Cuernavaca," become vital merely for telling you what's happening; otherwise, it's often hard to tell.
Deegan and Conly also project real film clips onto the neutral walls of the hangar-styled set they designed; these help establish the world of the Lindberghs better than Wingfield can. But at several points, they, Wingfield, and Corley lapse into perfunctory symbolism that neither they nor Edelmann can make convincingly organic: At multiple points, a blue-sky cloudscape appears so that Edelmann may stand before it, arms outstretched, as if he's - you guessed it - flying.
While the play itself doesn't fly, nor does it crash and burn; there are too few peaks and valleys in this play for either to happen. But what, after all, could really be done with a play whose two acts are subtitled "It all began with the Vicks VapoRub," and "And so Charles had his albatross"? The Service Cross of the German Eagle, bestowed by Hermann Göring, was Lindbergh's albatross; Wingfield's unwillingness to take chances is Flight's.