Seating for Bonnie’s Last Flight at Next Door @ NYTW is arranged by boarding zone. Theatergoers are called from the lobby by a uniformed gate attendant and escorted into a theater designed with care by Meredith Ries to resemble the interior of an airplane.
Over the course of 90 minutes, they receive a snack, an “emotional baggage” landing card, and a tiny water bottle with the name of their airline—Smelta—emblazoned on the side. Its ingredients? “Questionably purified water and Mark Twain’s Saliva.”
Welcome to the wild imagination of Eliza Bent, the author of this madcap journey, and the actor playing Mark Twain, the late humorist who acts as a magical narrator in this faintly immersive comedy set in the present day.
Sure, it’s silly. But Bonnie’s Last Flight isn’t merely some hokey send-off of air travel in the age of Ryanair-style austerity. It’s more like an existential Airplane!—full of weird humor and surrealism as well as genuinely sympathetic characters questioning their place in the world.
The “Bonnie” in the show’s title is slightly misleading. Flight 162 to Chicago is indeed Bonnie’s last—Bonnie is a dog—but the central figure in this story is her owner, Jan (Barbara Walsh), a flight attendant wrapping up a three-decade career in the skies to pursue the writer’s life like her hero Twain.
Besides its significance for Jan, the flight, for the most part, is uneventful. In fact, it doesn’t even get off the ground until at least halfway through the show. But there’s plenty to enjoy in Bent’s wry take on the everyday pettiness and strangeness of modern travel. Anyone who’s flown in the 21st century will recognize its routine features: the absurd safety demonstrations, the incessant complaints about internet connection, the oversized carry-ons.
There’s hilarity in the banality of it, and much of the humor in Bonnie’s Last Flight is to be found in Bent’s singular idiosyncrasies of language, physicality and anecdote. There are random dance numbers, surprising colloquialisms, and flashbacks that feature memorable passengers like Elizabeth Taylor and Ryan Seacrest.
Jan and her colleagues LeeAnne (Ceci Fernandez) and Greig (Greig Sargeant) handle the small indignities of the flight with aplomb. As Greig, Sargeant is perfectly droll. As LeeAnne, Fernandez turns neuroticism into charm.
In intermittent soliloquies, we learn about each of their quirks and their lives. And in scenes broadcast over video, we get a peek into other parts of the plane, notably the cockpit where the plane’s pilot (Sam Breslin Wright) and co-pilot (Federico Rodriguez) engage in bro-y banter. Under Annie Tippe’s sure-handed direction, each of these elements connect seamlessly into an experience that feels at once unexpected and logical.
Bonnie’s Last Flight is, chiefly, a funny show. But throughout, there is a unique cocktail of melancholy and irreverence—a combination succinctly encapsulated in one of Greig’s wistful monologue about flying’s gradual descent into casualness: “People used to dress up. Flying was an event. You know? Not something where you roll up in a Juicy sweat suit. Though, let’s be honest, I do have a soft spot for coordinated lounge wear and all things athleisure.”
There’s drama aboard, too, though it’s minimal for the most part until the latter half of the show, when turbulence on the plane accompanies turbulence in Jan’s retirement plans. But the play’s meaning, ultimately, is not tied up in those disturbances, or even, really, in the idea of air travel. Like many great trips, it’s not about the destination, but rather the journey. Twain, at the top of the show, says it best: “We won’t prosecute you for trying to find a narrative. Nor will we banish you for trying to find a moral. But we do hope you enjoy the ride. Bumps and all!”