One scene ends with the chilling cry, "We're going in! We're going in!" In another, the scariest lines come from an automated voice that suddenly interrupts the human crew in the cockpit: "Too low--terrain! Too low--terrain!" In the tense final sequence, two pilots aided by an off-duty colleague from the passenger section desperately try to land a DC-10 after an explosion robs the plane of its ability to make anything but right turns. Charlie Victor Romeo, a harrowing off-Broadway play in which actors recreate voice-recorder conversations from actual airliners that crashed, is every flyer's worst nightmare times six. And it's a stark example of an increasingly popular genre: plays drawn entirely from verbatim transcripts, interviews and other real-life words.
Such docu-plays aren't new. The Laramie Project (based on the Matthew Shepard killing), Anna Deavere Smith's monologues and Loose Lips, a satiric revue from the '90s, were all drawn from real-life words. But the form has lately been flexing its dramatic muscles. The Exonerated, an off-Broadway hit from 2002, fashioned a case against capital punishment by assembling interviews with former death-row inmates exonerated of their crimes. In The Permanent Way, a hit at London's National Theatre this winter, David Hare created what is likely to be the only good play ever written about the British railroad system, drawn from the words of public officials, ordinary riders and family members of those killed in crashes. The hot ticket in London at the moment is Guantanamo: 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,' an indictment of the treatment of imprisoned terrorist suspects, culled from the words of detainees, lawyers and public officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Is it drama, or is it Memorex? At their best, these plays are giving theater a fresh jolt of urgency and polemical passion. Even a nonpolitical work like Charlie Victor Romeo turns mundane dialogue into a gripping found-art commentary on the battle between man and machine. If only reality TV were this good.
--By Richard Zoglin