When did passengers stop clapping when their airplanes landed safely? Not very long ago, such applause was commonplace—a communal expression, perhaps, of relief, as well as appreciation for the pilots’ skill. Among today’s blasé fliers, it seems to have disappeared, but you may feel like reviving the practice after seeing the riveting, sobering docudrama Charlie Victor Romeo. The piece depicts six episodes of real-life aeronautical crisis that occured in the 1980s and 1990s; the title derives from the International Phonetic Alphabet code words for CVR (cockpit voice recorder), and the dialogue is taken directly from black-box transcripts that capture flight crews struggling valiantly to avoid disaster. For the most part, they don’t succeed.
Charlie Victor Romeo was first performed in 1999, but I saw it in 2004, when it returned to New York for a longer run. At that time, with 9/11 still reverberating loudly in the city, the play struck a chord of terror; now, at 3LD, it seems broader and sadder. Given the nature of the found texts in question, a staging could come off as merely macabre, compelling only in the way that crashes often are. As directed by cocreator Patrick Daniels, however, Charlie Victor Romeo does not feel exploitative. The dialogue is too crammed with technical jargon to be sensationalist, and the action is too intensely focused to accommodate the maudlin.
The cast of seven—which includes four actors from the 2004 production (Noel Dinneen, Deb Troché, Nora Wooley and Daniels himself, who performs with exceptional nuance)—seems completely of a piece with the material; the play’s tense flight simulations, heightened by Jamie Mereness’s excellent sound design, are grounded in the intricacies of ordinary life. In the end, the play is neither snuff theater nor a memorial to heroism; it is a portrait of focused professionals, doing their jobs, who are thrust into drama when things go wrong with senseless speed. At the end of Charlie Victor Romeo, you may feel too wrung-out to applaud, but the piece commands a roaring B: IPA code for bravo.—Adam Feldman
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