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A CurtainUp Review
Spirit Control

Alright Maxine, my name is Adam. Everything's going to be fine, okay? Do you know how to fly?.—Adam
No. No! I don't know what I'm doing!—Maxine
Alright. It's going to be okay. We're gonna get you down.—Adam
Spirit Control
Jeremy Sisto.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The frightened woman in the above quoted interchange is the only passenger in a small Cessna plane. The pilot has had a heart attack and is unconscious. Adam Wyatt, who's promising to bring her to safety is an air traffic controller at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport control tower with years of experience handling minor mishaps along with the more routine flights leaving and entering the airport. For all his calm assurance to the hysterical woman, however, this is an emergency unlike anything he's ever been faced with. The teeth and fist clenching situation makes for a slam-bang first ten minutes or so of this world premiere by up and coming playwright Beau Willimon. Even as you grip the edge of the seat you can only guess at what's going to happen — triumphant landing or tragic crash.

Whether you guessed right or wrong, it's a no brainer that Adam's uneventful but happy life, both on the job or with his wife and kids, will never be the same. After all, this is a 2-hour play so it's a fair bet that the after-effects of that emergency will propel the plot, and that the frightened woman about whom he learned bits and pieces in his effert to save her life, will be a presence in his life whether dead or alive. And so she is.

Willimon stretches this exploration of how we handle a crisis and the potential for long-lasting emotional trauma over twenty-five years. Unlike the playwright's very realistic political play Farragut North or the Katrina inspired Lower Ninth, the story of Adam's lengthy post-traumatic stress journey comes complete with detours from reality. It's a journey that lacks a road map with clear markers as to just what's real and what isn't and never quite matches that riveting opening scene. Quite a few viewers are likely to be put off by the play's ambiguity. Actually, it's not that difficult to figure out why Adam is so spooked and for so long, but in order to let you experience and interpret Spirit Control on your own, I've put plot details at the end of the production notes box so that you can read them after you've seen the play or, if you choose, now (Plot Details Here)

What I can tell you is that Jeremy Sisto, who's best known as Billy Chenowith to HBO's Six Feet Under fans and as Detective Cyrus Lupo of Law & Order, is terrifically powerful and sympathetic as the troubled Adam. He's on stage through practically every minute of the play.

Sisto gets good support from from Maggie Lacey as his wife. Lacey was last seen doing wonderful work in last year's epic The Orphans Home Cycle. Director Henry Wishcamper also draws excellent performances from Brian Hutchinson as Adam's colleague and friend, Mia Barron as a woman he first meets in a bar and newcomer Aaron Michael Davies as Adam's teen aged son (the father son scene is one of the play's highlight).

Typical of all production at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage 1, Spirit Control is handsomely staged. Robin Vest's scenery is simple but very effective, and enhanced by Natasha Katz's lighting and Aaron Rhyne's projections.

Before you click to my more detailed plot notes, a hint: Besides being the title of the airport where this drama is set in motion, Spirit Control has another meaning.

Links to review of other BeauWillimon plays
Farragut North
The Lower Ninth

Spirit Control by Beau Willimon
Directed by Henry Wishcamper
Spirit Control
Cast: Mia Barron (Maxine/Girl at the Bar), Charles Borland (FAA Official/Bill), Aaron Michael Davies (Tommy Wyatt), Brian Hutchison (Karl Jensen), Maggie Lacey (Jess Wyatt) and Jeremy Sisto (Adam Wyatt).
Scenic design by Robin Vest
Costume design by Jenny Mannis
Lighting design by Natasha Katz
Sound design by Broken Chord
Original Music by Chas Willimon Projection design by Aaron Rhyne.
Stage Manager: Alison DeSantis From 10/07/10; opening 10/26/10; closing 12/05/10. Approx. Running time: 2:10 with one 15 minute intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center - Stage I 131 West 55th Street 212-581-1212
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/23 press performance

Spirit Control Plot Details
Despite his calming guidance of the hysterical Maxine, Adam's rescue efforts fail. The will he or won't he save her question is answered with a sudden and scary crash.

Naturally, there's an inquiry by the FAA to be prepared in case there's a suit from Maxine's family. The man in charge of this initial inquiry, who reappears towards the end of the story, turns out to be a neophyte. This is his first such inquiry and he's unable to get Adam to seek the counselling he sorely needs to prevent the post traumatic stress trauma from escalating into a lifelong emotional dysfunction. It is during this inquiry that one could nitpick on the basis of two inaccuracies — shades of what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as " ice box moments." First, Adam belonged to a union which would not allow him to be interviewed without a union representative at his side. Second, the subject about Adam's taking a Tylenol comes up and when Adam confronts his co-controller and friend Karl about telling the FAA interviewer about it, Karl insists that the bottle of pills would have been found anyway. True-- but how would anyone be able to tell if Adam actually took a pill. Consequently, Karl was definitely doing his friend a disservice and some of the dialogue and his relationship to Adam's wife pretty much confirm this.

When Adam, quits his job and goes on a drinking binge in a bar where he meets an aggressively seductive young woman, he tells her about the accident and the woman whose death is haunting him. When the woman says she can be whoever he wants and tells him her name is Maxine, it's the first major hint that Adam is going to periodically need to seek out a fantasy Maxine. His disappearances from his family are repeats of that first bender with a variety of women he sees as Maxine. Thus, while Adam is able to compartmentalize his life to the point of launching a successful second career as a cell phone retailer, he is unable to have a realistic relationship with a woman. He makes enough money to buy his own Cessna plane and thus paves the way for his ultimate replay of the accident that began it all, only this time sitting right beside Maxine instead of in the control tower. The outcome of that fantasy is Spirit Control' at its most ambiguous.
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