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Theatre in Review: Bonnie's Last Flight (Next Door at NYTW)

Greig Sargeant, Barbara Walsh. Photo: Shun Takino.

Bonnie's Last Flight is a production design in search of a play. For this dramatic flight to nowhere, Meredith Ries has plausibly mocked up an airline interior that may remind you of your more uncomfortable adventures in air travel. (The action takes place on "Smelta," and the designer has amusingly used the typography of a similar-sounding business to create a most convincing logo.) Scattered everywhere are screens, on which, in David Pym's video design, are featured the inevitable safety messages and flight maps, along with clips from such airworthy film classics as The Graduate and When Harry Met Sally. Heather McDevitt Barton's costumes are authentic enough to suggest that she could have a side career creating high-flying couture. Oona Curley's lighting establishes the low levels that will be familiar to anyone who has taken a night flight; she also deftly carves the actors out of the darkness. John Gasper's sound contributes such an eerie simulacrum of turbulence that I was ready to buckle up. Especially considering that Bonnie's Last Flight has been staged at Next Door at NYTW, the low-budget farm team for New York Theatre Workshop, this is a pretty impressive achievement.

If only such care and attention had been focused on the plot and characters. Eliza Bent's script is a rattletrap collection of sketch-comedy tropes, most of them founded on the belief that the most random idea is always the funniest. The pilot staggers into the cockpit and opens a king-size can of beer, noting that it "tastes good after [the] unlimited Bloody Mary brunch." He has also given his colleague the nickname "Jesus" so he can say "God is dead, but Jesus is my copilot." Leeane, an attendant, struggles with her gambling addiction and on-again, off-again affair with the copilot; she also resolves to complete her PhD and return to the "Wiccan Family Temple." The copilot is a specialist in the songs of Joni Mitchell, which he launches into repeatedly. About her, he rhapsodizes, "She might be singing about running away but she keeps it rooted home, C major diatonic style. So, when she walks it down from F to D minor, the melismatic heartache of 'fly' is all the more powerful while remaining childlike. And don't even get me started on the lyrics." So arbitrary are some of the gags that they sound like a particularly perverse game of Mad Libs.

There are times when one wonders if Bent picked her dramaturgical ideas out of a hat. For reasons I couldn't explain under oath, Mark Twain is a passenger, cracking jokes like "Say, ever find yourself paralyzed by nostalgia? Me too! I never thought I'd miss President Garfield!" This is when he isn't singing little ditties with lyrics like the following: "I can't believe I'm up in the air/The logic of this is au contraire/Oh, my goodness would you look down there/Jet set jet back, Chicago O'Hare." There are flashbacks involving certain celebrities, including a pointless anecdote about an emergency landing with Elizabeth Taylor and a remarkably unfunny bit about Ryan Seacrest going into anaphylactic shock in mid-flight.

At the center of this nonsense is Jan, a veteran attendant who is making her last flight -- her corgi, Bonnie, is in the cockpit, hence the title -- prior to relocating to Chicago, where she plans to attend a writer's workshop preparatory to launching a new career. (She is a devotee of Mark Twain, which, I guess, explains you-know-who's presence.) Because she is played by the great Barbara Walsh, she is the most interesting thing onstage. Bent works up a whisper of a conflict between Jan and Greig (Greig Sargeant), her colleague and best friend, who is upset not to have been in on her retirement decision; whenever these two are squabbling, reminiscing, or pledging eternal friendship, something seems to be happening, if only briefly.

Otherwise, Bonnie's Last Flight is loaded with air pockets of tedium paired with lame humor. An unlucky audience member is singled out for a rendition of "Happy Birthday." Having "spilled" a can of V8 on a passenger, Leeane pretends to towel him off, apologizing for nearly touching his penis and adding, "That's what turbulence will do. Knock your hand over to someone's private zone. Just kidding. I know we're still on the ground."

The director, Annie Tippe, handles these shenanigans as best one can, although the performance I attended aped the challenges of flight in unexpected ways, such as starting fifteen minutes late, due to technical problems, and opening with a premature entrance by Walsh, who muttered, "Perhaps I came out too soon," before slipping offstage. In addition to her and Sargeant, Ceci Fernandez amusingly contrasts Leeane's ultraprofessional manner with moments of unbridled hysteria. The best one can say about the others is that they attack their roles with enthusiasm.

Near the end, for no particular reason, Bent unloads a series of calamities on Jan, at least giving her a half-decent monologue in which she looks back at her turbulent life and decides she has had "a pretty good run" after all. It's a nice bit, but hardly worth waiting for. Faced with the prospect of flying these sophomoric skies, I'd suggest taking the train. -- David Barbour

(14 February 2019)

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