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Spirit Control

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian Hutchison and Jeremy Sisto.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

You're unlike to find a more harrowing opening scene—or a more harrowing scene, period—this season than the one that kicks off Spirit Control. Beau Willimon's new play, which just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club, begins innocently enough, with two air traffic controllers on a typically stressful day at work at the St. Louis airport. Soon, their ordinary routine of radioing pilots the proper runway and altitude information becomes a literal matter of life and death: The man flying an incoming Cessna has had a heart attack, and the plane's only other passenger is a woman named Maxine, who's never flown before. The lead controller on duty, Adam Wyatt, must talk her down, hopefully keeping her rapidly disintegrating sanity and the plane intact.

Willimon achieves over the next 10 minutes something he could not with his political thriller Farragut North a couple of seasons back: true edge-of-your-seat, spine-tingling excitement. As Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and Karl (Brian Hutchison) struggle to return the hysterical woman to Earth, they elevate you to giddy lightheadedness. Without a single change of scenery, only a tightening of Natasha Katz's lights, the actors and director Henry Wishcamper teleport you between the ATC tower and the cockpit itself. One minute you're with the heroes on the ground, the next you're in the copilot's seat next to the woman who's being forced to become and do more than she'd ever before imagined. Can they work this miracle? If they do, what happens next? And if they fail, what will the repercussions be? Regardless, you don't just want to find out—you need to. This is theatre that's that good.

There are two problems inherent in this setup, one affecting this review and one affecting the play itself. The former, unfortunately, is that it's impossible to discuss anything else about Willimon's work without revealing this situation's outcome, so if you truly prefer not to know, you should stop reading now. The latter, which is even sadder, is that the rest of the play is never able to live up to the promise of its riveting beginning, and the atmosphere-kissing loop-the-loops of emotion you experience during those opening minutes never fully return.

Jeremy Sisto and Mia Barron.I>Photo by Joan Marcus.
For his part, Willimon does try to replace them with something vital. After the plane crashes, killing both people inside, Adam becomes obsessed with Maxine, whom he only knew by voice and the few biographical details he elicited from her in an attempt to calm her fraying nerves. A disastrous post-accident briefing leads Adam to drown his sorrows at a bar, where he meets a young woman (Mia Barron) who is a lot like Maxine: the same voice, the same basic personality, even the same name. Intoxicated in more ways than one, Adam shoves aside his wife, Jess (Maggie Lacey), and two sons in order to be with Maxine for a couple of nights, and in so doing sets himself on a path to personal destruction from which he's never able to recover.

The thrust of the play, and its problems, is that Adam must learn over the next two and a half decades just how much the crash damaged him. From 1985 (the year of the tragedy) to the present, Adam isolates himself from his family and friends and creates the life he's convinced he deserves for failing to talk Maxine down from the skies. His only real companion is the Maxine from the bar, who never ages and never blames him for what happened; she wants only to grant him the comfort and solace he can never allow himself. But once Willimon unveils the secrets behind the mystery of who this Maxine is and why she haunts Adam—which he does even before Act I concludes—there's nowhere for the story to go except ever deeper into a sinkhole of sadness from which neither Adam nor you can escape.

Effective as this approach may be—and don't be surprised if you find your eyes misting as events unfold—it's very one-note, and neither fulfilling nor instructive in the ways the best personal tragedies are. You can't fault most of the central performances: Sisto is superb progressing from 25 to 50, taking on the added baggage of his guilt along the way; Barron makes an alluring vision worth following into hell; Hutchison soars as a best friend who becomes dangerously friendly in his own right; and Aaron Michael Davies is cleverly callous as the grown version of Adam's son; only Lacey doesn't seem able to negotiate the large leaps in time and trouble her character requires. And Wishcamper's direction captures all the emotional emptiness so essential to defining Adam's story. And Robin West's spare scenic design is just right: a cloudy, two-dimensional reality (with projections designed by Adam Rhyne), blending with the vivid darkness of everyone's worst nightmare.

But those overwhelming pre-crash minutes, the tension so thick it could believably disrupt half a dozen people's lives, is such that even the smart, glossy professionalism of the rest of the production can't mask the depth of resolution that's missing. Willimon himself even seems to acknowledge this in the play's last couple of scenes, in which practically suffocates the work in hollow symbolism to bring the action full circle. It feels desperate, not sobering, and a far, unappealing cry from the simple and straightforward storytelling that makes the initial scene so transcendently powerful.

Spirit Control takes you to some intriguing locales within Adam's mind and heart, but none compares to the first stage picture we see: a wide-open vista of two men, staring out at the audience at a plane they can't know is destined to change both their lives forever. They're staring at a horizon of infinite possibilities, of questions about who we are and who we let the world—and our own inadequacies—make us, about to face it head on in a way few of us can even begin to imagine. What a fascinating landscape that is. If only we were allowed to explore more of what lies beyond it.

Spirit Control
Through December 5
New York City Center —Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule at

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