Spirit Control -- Theater Review

Murky drama about an emotionally tortured air-traffic controller loses steam after a slam-bang opening.

NEW YORK -- The opening scene of "Spirit Control" is as harrowing as you're ever likely to experience in the theater.

An air-traffic controller is desperately trying to talk a young woman through the risky process of landing a small plane after the pilot has suffered an apparent heart attack and lost consciousness. Not only do we see his desperate attempts to calm her down and provide the intricate details necessary for an emergency landing, but we also hear her panicky, agonized responses. It would make a hell of an opening sequence for a movie.

Unfortunately, the rest of this play by Beau Willimon -- who garnered raves for his political drama "Farragut North," soon to be filmed for the big screen -- goes downhill from there, lapsing first into turgid domestic melodrama and then muddled spiritual exploration.

Adam Wyatt (Jeremy Sisto) clearly is expert at his job despite the constant stress headaches that have him frequently asking his co-worker for Tylenol. And he responds to the crisis at hand with smooth, professional skill.

But he begins to unravel in the incident's aftermath. Seeking comfort at a nearby bar, he allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous, flirtatious girl (Mia Barron) who happens to have the same name as the woman who was flying the plane. This liaison ultimately wreaks havoc with his marriage to wife Jess (Maggie Lacey) and his relationship with son Tommy (Aaron Michael Davies).

As the play progresses, we witness Adam's downward spiral over the next 25 years as he quits his job after being grilled by an FAA investigator; gets divorced and begins living in a remote cabin in the woods; and begins a new life only to see his cell-phone-store business decimated by the recession. Meanwhile, he continues the relationship with the woman he met at the bar. Or does he?

These ensuing plot developments, which might be taking place entirely in Adam's tortured psyche, are far too murkily drawn to be engrossing.

Sisto, fresh from his role on the recently canceled "Law & Order," delivers a fiercely intense performance, movingly conveying his character's essential decency as well as his inner turmoil. But despite his strong efforts and that galvanizing opener -- superbly staged by director Henry Wishcamper -- "Spirit Control" loses its grip on the audience the more it goes on.

Venue: New York City Center Stage I (Through Dec. 5)
Presented by: Manhattan Theatre Club
Cast: Mia Barron, Charles Borland, Aaron Michael Davies, Brian Hutchison, Maggie Lacey, Jeremy Sisto
Playwright: Beau Willimon
Director: Henry Wishcamper
Scenic designer: Robin Vest
Costume designer: Jenny Mannis
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Broken Chord
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Original music: Chas Willimon