Studio's First-Class Ticket to Disaster

Paul Bargetto and Nora Woolley portray ill-fated crew members in
Paul Bargetto and Nora Woolley portray ill-fated crew members in "Charlie Victor Romeo." (By Robert Berger -- Studio Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Do not surprise Mom and Dad with seats for "Charlie Victor Romeo" unless you've prepared an itinerary that includes a descent into hell and a contemplation of oblivion.

A feel-good evening this is not. What the Air and Space Museum does for the wonders of flight, "Charlie Victor Romeo" does for the terrors of it.

The latest offering at Studio Theatre provides an agonizingly realistic ride in the cockpits of six doomed aircraft that crashed between 1985 and 1996. Based on the transcripts of recorded conversations among pilots and air traffic controllers, the 90-minute piece grimly reenacts the final stages of each of these real disasters, in which pilots are confronted with friendly skies suddenly becoming harrowingly hostile.

"Charlie Victor Romeo" -- industry lingo for "cockpit voice recorder" -- is fascinating in the way that a freshly mangled van on I-95 forever seems to be for those driving by. The service the play renders is to disabuse the uninitiated of any Hollywood notion of how hyperbolically pilots behave under the most excruciating pressure. Virtually all the airline employees depicted in "Charlie Victor Romeo" are engaged until the last seconds in a methodical effort at trying to solve problems of bewildering complexity.

At times, their struggles to bring the errant planes back under control can be inspiring. Being able to observe activity so purposeful, so devoid of panic, is the play's one consoling aspect.

It's difficult to conceive of the production, by the experimental New York troupe Collective: Unconscious, being improved on technically. (The company, which began performing it several years ago in downtown Manhattan, periodically takes it on the road.) The cast of seven has perfected the comradely stoicism that guides behavior at the helm of all that thrust. All the actors perform competently, but Patrick Daniels -- one of the show's creator-directors -- conveys the temperament of command a bit more convincingly than everyone else. Beads of sweat collect impressively on his brow.

Punctuated by blackouts, the incidents are dramatized, one after another. As each of the vignettes begins, actors in tidy haircuts and standard-issue white shirts with epaulets nestle into their gray mock-up of a cockpit, which resembles one of the space museum's flight simulators. Some of the disasters occur at takeoff, others at landing. Some of them meander and some are over 1-2-3. All of them force you into a peculiar intimacy with death.

The play is a white-knuckle flier's nightmare. The cumulative effect is to undermine one's sense of airborne well-being. Flight instruments fail. Geese are sucked into engines. Bulkheads rupture. "Something exploded," a crew member on a Japan Air Lines 747 remarks, minutes before the plane goes down with 524 souls aboard. All but four are lost, and as this information is reported on an overhead screen, the audience gasps in mournful disillusionment.

The dialogue, much of it delivered in the neutral to slightly upbeat voices pilots seem to cultivate, consists of lots of "roger" this and "copy" that. Although the pilots of a Peruvian airliner whose data systems go horrifically haywire end up at each other's throats, few other moments of discord crop up. Only occasionally -- as on an American Eagle flight that crashed because of icing in Indiana in 1994 -- does the recorded chatter veer to casual topics, of the sort that humanize the people in the cockpit. "Hey, bro," a pilot taking a breather says over the intercom, "getting busy with the ladies back here."

Like much of "Charlie Victor Romeo," the sound effects -- of metal meeting earth at hundreds of miles an hour, of fuselage making contact with flying objects -- has a sickly verisimilitude.

To what end? A society of semiprofessional voyeurs can never, it seems, have too many facts. A real murder is more rawly experienced if somehow we get to hear the victim's screams in a 911 call; an autopsy on a TV procedural crime drama grabs the viewer when the camera gets in close and lingers on the exposed organs.

"Charlie Victor Romeo" treads on some of this same territory. The good thing is that it's all been handled with care. It's cathartic but by no means entertaining. You might be glad you saw it, although it's also likely you'll never want to see it again.

Charlie Victor Romeo, created by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory. Directed by Berger and Daniels. Set, Bill Ballou and Cecile Boucher; lighting, Derek Wright. With Sam Zuckerman, Noel Dinneen, Nora Woolley, Paul Bargetto, Debbie Troche. About 90 minutes. Through June 25 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit .

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