‘Charlie Victor Romeo’: nerve-jangling, plane crash docu-theater

The fact that great theater can be built from fairly simple subject matter and performance style — rather than elaborate traditional stagecraft — is demonstrated with tremedous force in “Charlie Victor Romeo,” a “play” made up almost entirely of the black box transcripts of commercial jet disasters.

The creation of Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory, of New York’s Collective Unconscious theater company, debuted in 1999 and has since played in venues all over the world.

The creators returned to New York City recently to put together a documentary about the show. Fortunately, for theatergoers like me who missed earlier runs, “Charlie Victor Romeo” was restaged for a two-week run, elements of which will be incorporated into the film.

Audience members were warned that anyone entering the 3LD Art & Technology Center theater was agreeing to be part of the eventual film (a guy with a video camera was discreetly taping audience reactions throughout the performance).

Despite the simple cockpit set, and minimum of lighting effects, “Charlie Victor Romeo” is one of the most gripping pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.

We observe what went on in the cockpits of six real flights that ran into severe mechanical or weather-related stress. The way that the pilots and crew members remained fully engaged at their work while facing a catastrophic crash is tremendously moving and inspiring.

Jokes have been made about the seemingly emotionless announcements made by the captain and other flight crew members on commercial jet flights, but the cool way they focus on the work at hand is an essential element when something goes wrong. In the six vignettes in “Charlie Victor Romeo” the way that the crew keeps trying to deal with an out of control situation — right up to the end — is a testament to the sort of people who go into aviation (and their belief that somehow there is a way out of any jam).

The play begins with American Airlines Flight 1572 — in November 1995 — which had an incorrectly set altimeter that resulted in the plane flying 70 feet lower than the crew thought there were. They crashed into treetops but made it to the runway with no casualties.

“Charlie Victor Romeo” moves into bigger and more disastrous flight emergencies including the Japan Air Lines jumbo jet that crashed in 1985, killing 520 of the 524 people on board. The flight crew kept the plane flying for a half hour after the bulkhead ruptured, which caused the loss of all hydraulics and the vertical fin. The crew managed to keep the plane going with minimal controls but eventually crashed into a mountain as they tried to land.

There is really no emotional “arc” in this unique piece of theater other than the fact that the final scene — United Airlines Flight 232 in July 1989 — shows us how an amazingly resourceful crew managed to crash land another plane without hydraulics, saving more than half of the 285 passengers on board.

“Charlie Victor Romeo” opens with two flight attendants taking us through the seat belt fastening ritual and emergency spiel that we’ve all long since tuned out when we are about to fly somewhere on a commercial jet. I doubt that anyone who has seen this one-of-a-kind theater event will fly again without silently thanking the folks who get us where we are going.

(For information on future performances of the play and the progress of thefilm go to www.charlievictorromeo.com)

Joe Meyers