The tense opening scene of “Spirit Control” plays like gangbusters — but it’s all downhill from there. Scribe Beau Willimon opens the action in 1985, up in the control tower of Spirit of St. Louis Airport, where an air traffic controller named Adam (played with nerves of steel by Jeremy Sisto) is talking down a frantic passenger forced to land a plane after the pilot has a heart attack. Understandably rattled by the experience, Adam proceeds to unravel in ways that become progressively implausible. This vehicle deserves to crash.
Sisto is one of those versatile actors who finds work on both coasts playing big stages (“Festen” on Broadway, “Dead End” at the Ahmanson), small stages and screens of all sizes. So maybe the first-rate character work he pulls off here will get him a better gig somewhere else.
Adam ages 25 years over the course of this three-act play. In act one, he keeps it together during those excruciatingly anxious moments when he’s trying to avert a catastrophe, only to lose it (along with his job) when the post-traumatic stress kicks in. In act two, he has become so fixated on Maxine Serres (Mia Barron), the passenger on that runaway plane, that he has alienated his wife, Jess (Maggie Lacey), and lost touch with his two young sons. Act three finds him in full crisis mode, desperately trying to repair his relationship with his teenaged son, Tommy (Aaron Michael Davies), but losing himself to his full-blown obsession with Maxine.
Sisto takes Adam through his character changes with such subtle psychological inflections that it becomes something of an audience challenge to read his mind. Has he truly rescued Maxine — or has he just lost his mind to survivor guilt?
Under Henry Wishcamper’s wavering direction, the other characters can’t seem to decide whether they’re supposed to be real people (in which case their behavior is incredible) or just players in Adam’s fantasy (in which case they’re even less credible). Willimon tries to have it both ways.