For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that I am not a fearless flier. While I don’t have to resort to medical means for finding a calm center upon takeoff (or landing or turbulence), I certainly do find myself breathing deeply and relying superstitiously on the Wayfarers Prayer* to get me through. There’s also a healthy dose of que sera sera. So I was somewhat dubious walking into the theater for a play about plane crashes, especially considering that the theater in question is all the way down in the financial district, a mere proverbial stone’s throw away from the site of the single worst airplane-based catastrophe in history.
Walking in, you almost expect the 3LD theater — with its curved white walls and futuristic glow — to take off itself. The stage is a small raised platform with a small nosecone, three chairs and cockpit instrumentation. There are no frills here. When the lights go down, we are treated to an authentic flight attendant safety briefing, complete with sample seat belt buckling and indicative hand gestures toward the exits. What a nice touch.
The show itself is a series of short vignettes, one story after another in close succession with only the darkness and the sounds of air-to-ground communications feeding through the speakers. And let me tell you, it is harrowing. The first scene takes place in the air above Connecticut, with a plane coming in to land at Bradley — albeit rather too low. Everything is going fine until BANG! The aircraft hits some trees and the pilots have to find a way to right the situation and bring everyone down safely. It’s seven minutes of wonderful, soothing pilot voices and then one minute of absolute, sheer panic.
That’s the thing about this show; it lulls you in and then slaps you hard across the face with its unflinching take on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. As it turns out, everyone in this first vignette is fine. It was just a bit of a scrape up and there are no injuries. The first lesson of the night for would-be aviators: Do not attempt to land a plane at an airport if your altimeter indicates that the airport is below the surface of the Earth. Makes sense. Good lesson.
The next short scene is also eight minutes long, but unlike the first, the pilots do not manage to right the craft in time. After another period of perfectly normal cockpit chatter, the first signs of trouble appear. The pilots rally, working through their options at the speed of thought and doing all they can to keep the bird in flight. But theirs is not a happy end. The plane goes down and all souls are lost. A screen above the stage gives a technical readout of the event: flight number, number of souls on board, no survivors.
And that’s how the show goes. In one instance the flight goes from dull to disaster in a mere 22 seconds — a completely accurate timing according to the show’s writer slash producers. In another, there is panic from the start, and the actors hold on to that tension for the duration of the scene, spouting technical jargon all the while, keeping the audience tensed, minds braced for impact. It’s an interesting and, I imagine, difficult structure to carry off, but the company does an admirable job of it. Credit also should be given to the sound engineers, who took on the “voice” of the plane and made it feel like a living, breathing character. The deafening crashing noises and shrill shriek of the engines really elevated the experience to something visceral with long-lasting (to pardon the pun) impact.
We don’t often get a chance to see what goes on behind the metal door, a fact that has become doubly true since the events of that fateful day previously alluded to. Special care was taken to make sure this didn’t take on an air like reality TV, wherein a situation changes just by being observed (sort of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of popular culture) and success is measured in emotional outputs rather than accurate portrayal. This is quite the opposite.
As a piece of “documentary theater,” the writers concerned themselves with accuracy, making sure to get across the idea that pilots, like any other professional trained for highly skilled and technical work — doctors in particular — are trained to subjugate their emotions and instinctualize the procedures. The piece is meant to remove some of the mystery surrounding a pilot’s job and builds a bridge in understanding between the aviation professionals and the lay audience. I can’t say it was a fun show, but it was incredibly interesting and educational and certainly unlike anything I have seen before.
Incidentally, the creators calculated that you have a better chance of committing suicide than you do of being in a plane crash. My fears also were assuaged when it was revealed that the errors that caused each of the crashes — both mechanical and human — were all resolved, never to repeat in all the years since. As someone who has five flights booked in the next month, it is a comforting thought, indeed.
Photos by Bob Berger
1. (L to R) Sam Zuckerman, Nora Woolley, Noel Dinneen
2. (L to R) Sam Zuckerman, Nora Woolley, Noel Dinneen
3. (L to R) Sam Zuckerman, Christiaan Koop, Noel Dinneen, Debbie Troche, Patrick Daniels
4. (L to R) Debbie Troche, Paul Bargetto
Charlie Victor Romeo played at the
3LD Arts & Technology Center
80 Greenwich Street