The last time (which also happened to be the first time) I saw a Beau Willimon play I had a great experience: Farragut North, which I described at the time as a less idealized episode of The West Wing, was playing at the Atlantic Theatre. The play focuses on wunderkind campaign manager Stephen, and we watch as his grasp on just about everything spirals out of control during the Iowa primaries. I saw this in fall 2008, just weeks before President Obama was elected. If that wasn’t enough to make the experience exciting and relevant, my main man, John Gallagher, Jr., was starring as Stephen. All this is a long way of saying that my expectations for Spirit Control, Willimon’s latest play, were high. While I wasn’t positively overwhelmed by anything in this play, I did enjoy it.
Spirit Control centers on Adam Wyatt, an air traffic controller. After a tragic accident we watch Adam circle for a landing, trying to find his way back to normalcy and attempting to make peace with “the incident.” The play dips and turns, and for this audience member, there was a little turbulence, but mostly it was a good, safe flight.
The play starts out very strong, with snappy, if technical, dialogue. Adam and his colleague, Karl, shoot the breeze while talking with the pilots in the sky. I was on the edge of my seat as the accident unfolded but unfortunately the rest of the first act flew at a lower altitude. During intermission, I found myself thinking, “Beau should stick to politics.” I was pleasantly surprised (and corrected!) when the second act revealed itself to be strong, complex and thoroughly engaging. At the beginning of the second act, we see how Adam’s life has changed in the 12 years since the incident, and throughout the rest of the play, we see him coping with changes every day, all the way up to the present day. The audience – and Adam – is not quite sure what’s real and what’s therapeutically-imagined but it all culminates in a satisfying ending.
The performances here are strong. Jeremy Sisto (of “God, Elton, can’t you suck!” Clueless fame) leads the cast as Adam. I liked him right away and then not so much in the last scene of act one. I thought he was playing one-note. But then act two began and he brought such color to Adam as he aged and tried to reconstitute his relationship with his son, Tommy. As his son, Aaron Michael Davies is great to watch. We meet him as a teenager, when he has lots and lots of resentment built up toward Dad. As the act progresses, Tommy gets older (by the end of the play he’s about 30) and Davies transitions well from juvenile, petty hang ups to real, adult grudges.
I had the unexpected fortune to stick around for a post-show discussion with assistant director Portia Krieger and the playwright. While I couldn’t get my question in and find out what inspired Beau to write about aviation in St. Louis, I did find it satisfying to hear him talk about the experience of finding out about the characters he’d written through the actors’ performances. He also admitted to intentionally making certain moments or themes a little ambiguous and challenged us to think about it and make our own decisions. For that, I thank him very much! I liked Spirit Control. And while it’s not ready to take flight on Broadway right now (I have no idea if that’s an aim) I would like to see it worked on a little more, possibly enjoying regional or other New York runs, during which the story and performances can be even more fleshed out and sharpened.
(Read the NY Times review here, and visit mtc-nyc.org for more information about Spirit Control or to buy tickets.)