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Spirit Control

Beau Willimon's new play about a troubled pilot is a confused muddle.

Brian Hutchison and Jeremy Sisto in Spirit Control
(© Joan Marcus)
On its surface, Beau Willimon's Spirit Control, playing at New York City Center Stage I, chronicles how a man's seemingly picture perfect home life crumbles after a tragic event. But Willimon's contrived script and director Henry WIshcamper's pedestrian staging combine to make the piece little more than a confusing theatrical muddle.

There's little doubt that the play begins with a nerve-jangling rush as Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and his genial coworker Karl (Brian Hutchison) find the normalcy of a workday in the control tower outside of St. Louis airport thrown into chaos as they learn that a passenger named "Maxine," needs their help in landing a private airplane after its pilot has suffered a heart attack. Sisto infuses Adam's response to her distress with both an adrenaline-fueled urgency and steady sense of command that reassures not only the person to whom he's speaking on the radio, but also tense theatergoers.

Soon, the play moves forward to Adam's debriefing with an unsympathetically blunt FAA Official (Charles Borland), and then, to a dive bar where Adam's propositioned by an exceptionally forward woman (Mia Barron). This character -- also named Maxine -- will haunt his future as much as the woman he attempted to help in the plane.

From the woman's initial appearance, Willimon seems to be setting theatergoers up to believe that she is some sort of projection from Adam's psyche. This assumption is underscored by not only the striking physical similarities between Barron and Maggie Lacey, the actress playing Adam's wife, Jessica, but also the ways in which the blue dresses the actresses wear (provided by Jenny Mannis) resemble one another. Even the fact that Maxine never ages as the play moves forward over the course of 25 years seems to indicate that Maxine is just in Adam's mind.

There's a certain Twilight Zone eeriness to the premise, and if Willimon committed to exploring Adam's obsession with this figment of his imagination, Spirit Control might prove haunting. Instead, the playwright eschews clarity and opts instead to distract audiences with generalized accounts of the dissolution of Adam's marriage, the rancor that his youngest son Tommy (Aaron Michael Davies) feels about his father's behavior, Jessica's remarriage to Adam's colleague Karl, and the almost meteoric success Adam ultimately has as cellular phone retailer.

As the play shifts unsteadily from scene to scene (quite literally given the awkward shifts between locales in Robin Vest's unautomated scenic design), audiences even begin to wonder if all of these events, which sometimes don't add up and at others seem too conveniently arranged, are somehow projections that Adam makes about his future in the moments following the plane crash. And yet, this can't be: No one in 1985 would dream that they were selling PDAs, much less a device with the name "Blackberry."

The actors work valiantly to bring the play to life, but the script resists their efforts time and again, whether it is the moment when Karl cruelly rebuffs Adam after the latter man has shared a troublesome confidence or the scene when a customer at Adam's cell phone franchise suddenly shares intimate details about Maxine. This latter sequence leads to the play's finale, which finds Adam reliving the moments before the plane crash in a way that, like so much of Spirit Control, simply confounds.


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