It’s a rainy Tuesday night and the cast of playwright Eliza Bent’s latest concoction Bonnie’s Last Flight is already mid-rehearsal when I enter.
Director Annie Tippe is moving about the space, helping the performers organize their business–“We have a brownie, right?”–to run a flashback sequence. I observe many chairs filling the middle of the room and realize what I’m looking at is the mock-up of a plane. This seating arrangement is very soon to be filled by audience members when the show opens on February 8 (running through March 2) at the Fourth Street Theatre through New York Theater Workshop’s Next Door program. For now, though, practice.
Bonnie’s Last Flight is Jan’s story, that of a middle-aged flight attendant who has always dreamed of being a writer and finally sees an opportunity to pursue that dream when she is offered a seat in a prestigious writer’s workshop led by a high-profile novelist. In this particular section of the play, weary, yet buoyant flight attendants Jan (Barbara Walsh) and Greig (Greig Sargeant) are taking a little walk down memory lane with the assistance of their scatterbrained colleague LeeAnne (Ceci Fernandez), a millennial with a remarkable gift for getting lost on a plane.
As they ready themselves to distribute in-flight snacks, Greig reminisces about that one time he and Jan flew with a peanut allergy-afflicted Ryan Seacrest, but Greig can’t quite remember his name: “There was this sort of D-list celebrity. God what was his name… Brian Something. Brain SeaMusk. No, Orian SeaCrust?” But before LeeAnne can make an argument for the cultural relevance of the American Idol host, we’re catapulted back into the past as Jan and Greig struggle to find a doctor, or at the very least a spare Benadryl.
I watch the actors work the flashback bit several times, Fernandez pulling off a hilariously virtuoso turn as she races between playing two parts: LeeAnne and Seacrest’s incompetent personal assistant. Comedy is a precision game–she needs to get her hat at a particular moment so she can land the joke and I watch her negotiate this action with her fellow actors, all the while maintaining the high-octane energy required of the gag.
We might be on an aircraft, but this is purely ship-of-fools territory. A volunteer physician played like a zealous Columbo by Sam Breslin Wright (doubling here in his primary role of drunken pilot) is even less up to the job than SeaCrust’s, excuse me … Seacrest’s whiny PA. By the time Jan and the physician find themselves in a full-blown face-off, I’ve nearly fallen off my chair at the sheer delicious stupidity of it all:
PILOT as DOCTOR: What’s going on?
JAN: This man has a peanut allergy. No epi pen. The brownie set him off.
PILOT as DOCTOR: Let me see the brownie packaging. I’m a doctor.
JAN: And I’m a flight attendant!
Self-evident declarations like these remind me just how silly any theatrical enterprise really is–people putting on hats and voices in total commitment to a fantasy world. Despite the fact that in full production the piece will be outfitted with sound and video to create the true environment of a plane-Smelta Airlines here–it’s still poor theater in the best sense of the phrase, and the antics found on Smelta are not so far off from the games children create in the privacy of playrooms everyday with abandoned clothes and household objects.
Bent’s work has that sense of play embedded in it. She has been creating joyous worlds like this for a long time in shows like her pun-based meditation on love and intimacy On a Clear Day I Can See to Elba, her Italian-inflected ode to travel in The Hotel Colors, and Toilet Fire (full-disclosure: I dramaturged a bit on that last one) where she hosted a liturgical mass over digestive troubles. Using wordplay, the ridiculous, and her sheer audacity, she tells simple stories tinged with the melancholy of roads taken and not.
Bonnie’s Last Flight is no exception. Over the course of a single flight, Bent has Jan explore the quandary of how does one touch the ground when you have spent so much of your life in liminal space. Jan is spurred along in her existential dilemma by the presence of an unexpected passenger, her idol Mark Twain, played by Bent in rakish old man drag. Watching the playwright-actor jump in and out of watching and performing her play, I was struck by the joy and ease of this activity. It’s an old-fashioned thing–“We’re puttin’ on a play!”
At the end of rehearsal, I sat down to chat with Tippe and Bent about working on the piece, which they’ve been developing together since 2016, through various residencies at Space on Ryder Farm and BRIC Media, an arts incubator in Fort Greene. They have a warm rapport with each other, no doubt fostered by the length of their collaboration and the mirth of the material.
Tippe, who is known for her work directing Dave Malloy’s musical Ghost Quartet and the site specific Washeteria for Soho Rep, reports, “I feel the most myself directing this play of any play [I have directed] because, well, no one writes funny plays! I feel like you rarely get to work on funny plays and I like jokes. It’s physical and goofy and heartfelt–that’s all of the things I love most and I get to do all of them.”
Tippe’s enthusiasm also comes from having directly influenced the script through playful challenges she would give Bent, who originally wrote the piece as one long monologue delivered from Jan’s point of view.
I ask for an example and Bent immediately fires off, “The Pilot on Masculinity, Celebrity and Fear of Water – that’s the title of a prompt Annie had given me.” Surprised, Tippe replies, “I thought it was like Somebody Spills Something,” and without missing a beat, Bent deadpans, “That was also a prompt.”
So, in a work that already covers so much ground (puns truly being infectious here), why is Mark Twain in this play? Bent chuckles just slightly in her response:
“You’re not the first person to ask, you won’t be the last. Jan and Twain feel very tethered to me. Both of them are very keen observers of human behavior and sort of very cynical, satirical people and so their sharp observations about human behavior always felt really tied. … Initially when I had written all this super preliminary Jan text, I kept looking at Twain quotes because it felt like a lot of [them] were things she could say and then as it became clear the whole play should be on an airplane I got really excited about playing Mark Twain and so I was like, I’ll write a small role for myself as well. Ultimately … [Jan’s] this flight attendant who really always set out to be a writer–but her life didn’t go that way. Twain has been a gold standard for her in terms of a writer she admires and a writer she wants to emulate. In many ways the story of Mark Twain is [one of] letting go of your idol and owning your own artistic self.”
And if that’s not excuse enough to put Mark Twain in your play, Bent sends me an MP3 after rehearsal that seals the deal: an original song she’s written that will appear in the piece called “Twain on a Plane.” It’s something of an ode to the wonders of modern flight, appreciated through the eyes of a figure whose death roughly dovetailed with the advent of aircraft. It’s a lovely little tune. It reminds me how wondrous it is to see the world with a little distance between myself and the earth.
Tickets and more information on Bonnie’s Last Flight can be found here.