One moment that changes everything

Beau Willimon’s Spirit Control’ in New York

3 minute read
Hutchison, Sisto: Ghosts in the skies.
Hutchison, Sisto: Ghosts in the skies.
The first act of Spirit Control, a new play by Beau Willimon, takes off with the speed of a jet and flies as fast as the Concorde, of blessed memory.

It's the summer of 1985. Adam Wyatt, played by the excellent Jeremy Sisto, is a handsome, popular and confident air traffic controller with many years of experience. His colleague, Karl Jensen (Brian Hutchison) lacks Adam's looks and flare, not to mention his friend's pretty wife (Maggie Lacey) and kids. Adam, in fact, seems to have everything. But soon they will change places.

When the play opens, the two men stand behind a counter facing the audience as they gaze skyward, chitchatting and directing small jets to the runway at the St. Louis airport. It's a busy day but routine for these two guys.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly for them and the audience, a hysterical woman radios that the pilot of her small plane has suffered a heart attack and has stopped breathing. Although she has no experience, Adam tells her "to focus" and he will guide her every move, so she can land the plane herself.

Palpable tension

Immediately, we identify with the unseen woman, mentally picturing the controls she must locate. We can see her pushing the throttle, turning the nose of the plane. It's hard to imagine a more effective way of engaging an audience. The tension in the theater is palpable as Adam quietly directs the woman, whose name is Maxine. (If you don't want to know what happens, don't read further.)

Everything seems to be proceeding well, when unbelievably, the small plane crashes with a loud explosion. It's a shocking turn of events so early in the play, especially because we anticipate a smooth landing. As if we're surviving passengers, we remain dazed as Adam gradually loses his equilibrium.

That's a hard act to follow— and, indeed, the rest of the two-hour play seems to veer off-course and lose its momentum. It's tempting to say that in theater as in life, sometimes there are no second acts. Not great ones, at least.

Mystery woman

Act II of Spirit Control takes place 12 years later, after Adam has become a successful cell phone retailer. And in the final scenes, we see him another 13 years later, in 2010— looking lost and grey--divorced from his wife and estranged from his angry teenage son, Tommy (Aaron Michael Davies, making an effective off-Broadway debut). For some reason, the other son never appears.

But that's OK, because the crux of the matter (and the play) revolves around a mysterious and sensual woman whom Adam meets in a bar. Coincidentally, her name is Maxine too. Well, not so coincidentally, of course. Is Maxine a figment of his imagination? Is she the spirit that controls his life?

Haunting presence

Mia Barron gives a powerful performance as this haunting presence that refuses to die. Jeremy Sisto (whose many stage credits have been overshadowed by his TV presence on "Six Feet Under" and "Law and Order") is one of the most compelling young actors around. It's hard to take your eyes off him. His character is full of complexity and offers much to consider.

The play ends as Adam takes the wheel of a phantom plane. Is the playwright telling us that Adam has once again taken control of his life?

While I was initially disappointed in the second act, a funny thing happened on the way home from the theater: I found myself unable to stop thinking about it. Ultimately, despite its weaknesses, Spirit Control continues to haunt you long after the characters have left the stage. Perhaps that's the mark of a successful play.

What, When, Where

Spirit Control. By Beau Willimon; directed by Henry Wishcamper. Through December 5, 2010 at Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th St., New York.

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