BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
New York's theater season happens to be stacked up with opening nights right now. To keep current, here is one review for two newly-landed Off Broadway shows, "Wings" and "Spirit Control," both of which coincidentally regard aspects of flying.
The far more satisfying attraction, Second Stage Theatre's revival of "Wings" stars Jan Maxwell as Emily Stilson, a former aviatrix of the 1930s who suffers a devastating stroke as an older woman when the 70-minute drama begins.
The swift remainder of Arthur Kopit's absorbing drama studies the disoriented yet valiant Emily's recovery from her cerebral accident. Much of the play occurs inside Emily's bewildered mind as she tries at first to comprehend what has happened. "What a strange time I am having," muses Emily as fleeting, confusing shards from the hospital present and her daredevil past swirl around like a nightmarish storm.Best known for radically rethinking musicals such as "Sweeney Todd," John Doyle keenly directs the very mutable rhythms and complex production aspects demanded by Kopit's harrowing though uplifting play which appeared on Broadway in 1979 with Constance Cummings as Emily.
The playwright's artfully fragmented dialogue is enhanced by designer/composer Bray Poor's soundscape that merges environmental noises with echoes and warped effects. Projections designer Peter Nigrini's collages of blurring images and lighting designer Jane Cox's variously sharp or shadowy illumination convey Emily's changing perceptions as her condition improves.
A six-member ensemble ably portrays hospital staff and patients (January LaVoy offers a kindly presence as a therapist), but everything centers upon Maxwell's dauntless Emily, who bravely rides out whatever mental and physical challenges confront her. Perhaps the play's most touching moment arises when Emily gestures towards her head and haltingly explains, "I can't make it do it like it used to."
Seen on Broadway last season in contrasting roles as the elegant leading lady of "The Royal Family" and as a tempestuous Italian spitfire in "Lend Me a Tenor," Maxwell is a versatile charmer with a magical spark that makes whatever she does look special. Here in "Wings," Maxwell's deeply-felt performance beautifully shades the terrors, frustrations and ultimately joyful sense of achievement that Emily experiences as she faces the unknown.
Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Spirit Control" at New York City Center Stage 1 offers scarcely so rewarding a journey as "Wings."
Up-and-coming playwright Beau Willimon at least delivers a high-tension opening scene situated in the flight control tower at a Midwest airport. A compelling actor late of "Law & Order" and "Six Feet Under," a dark and typically intense Jeremy Sisto drives it extremely well as a controller trying to talk down to the ground a hysterical woman in a small plane.
The disappointing rest of "Spirit Control" then drifts off into the strange romantics of some forgotten "Twilight Zone" rerun.
Sisto is joined by other capable actors like Maggie Lacey as the guy's none-too-understanding wife, Brian Hutchison as his buddy in the tower and Mia Barron as a shadowy stranger, but the two meandering acts of hazy unhappiness his character suffers are really two acts too many.
Director Henry Wishcamper and his designers get the show off the ground nicely enough but then, like the author, never go anywhere particularly interesting.
"Wings" runs thru Nov. 21 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC. Call (212) 246-4422 or visit www.2st.com. "Spirit Control" runs through Dec. 5 at New York City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.