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Created by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory
It’ll get under your skin, Charlie Victor Romeo will, and inside your head and maybe on your nerves, too: I’ve never seen a show more white-knuckle gripping than the airline-crash docudrama Studio Theatre has imported for the summer, but about midway through its 90 punishing minutes I started feeling sick at the built-in voyeurism of it. Bone-spare and crushingly real, the six short scenes that play out on the cramped cockpit set derive entirely from actual crashes, most with no survivors, and the cross-chatter among pilots and controllers, co-pilots and flight attendants and engineers, is taken verbatim from transcripts made from the planes’ black boxes—the cockpit voice recorders, or CVRs, that give the show its military-jargon title. Much has been made since the show’s 1999 premiere in New York of the raw, unfiltered “reality” its genesis implies (in an era that’s debased the term), and though I generally agree that there’s nowhere theater ought not be nervy enough to go, it’s in the show’s real-life origins that most of my doubts started: As with United 93, I found myself moved by the bravery of the people depicted in Charlie Victor Romeo, by the grim competence and the cool resolve and the dark humor with which they confront the terrors and the uncertainties that erupt when engines explode or bulkheads shear or sensors fry; and simultaneously, knowing that their desperate struggles will end with a nauseating crunch, I began to wonder what right I have to watch, whether it honors those struggles to witness them enacted in this safe, dark space. They were brave, yes, and competent and cool—just how much so is driven home by the constant, nerve-shredding cacophony of Jamie Mereness’ tremendously effective sound design, with its hydraulic whines and its prop drones and its fugal skeins of beeps and whoops and screeches. But these were real people, and Charlie Victor Romeo is no memorial—not at $40 a pop. I haven’t decided what it is, exactly, but despite the considerable competence of its own crew, the steady trickle of grim-faced, exit-bound patrons at its press matinee suggested that I’m not the only one who’ll be feeling conflicted about it.—Trey Graham