I follow a strict protocol of attitudinal class warfare when I board airplanes. As I walk proudly back to coach, I make eye contact with as many first-class passengers as possible, silently forcing the question: you think you’re better than me? I didn’t have that opportunity at Bonnie’s Last Flight, a clever new comedy which transforms Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop into a Smelta Airlines plane. I won’t give away all the delightful surprises of this set-dressing, but I will say that holders of $75 First Class Business Premium tickets get seated first, and treated to complimentary champagne. I was seated in the Comfort Plus section, and I couldn’t keep my cool and wage class warfare. I was so jealous! They got snacks too! The theater is in a tiny space but folks, if you can, spring for the good seats if only to feel, for the duration of this 90-minute show, like you’re part of the 1%.
Bonnie’s Last Flight, directed by Annie Tippe, centers around the retirement of Jan (the balletic Barbara Walsh), a middle-aged senior flight attendant with writerly aspirations. The play unfolds over the course of her last flight; the eponymous Bonnie is her co-traveler dog, safely farting away in the cockpit. The other characters comprise the rest of the flight crew. There are two other flight attendants, Jan’s best friend Greig (Greg Sergeant) and Leeanne (Ceci Fernandez). There’s also the pilot (Sam Breslin), nicknamed by his co-pilot “Coach,” and the co-pilot (Federico Rodriguez), nicknamed by the pilot “Jesus.” On occasion, the cast members also play figures from each other’s memories, including lost loves and Liz Taylor.
The most charming cast member is the playwright herself, Eliza Bent, who appears as the sprightly and puckish specter of Mark Twain. Sometimes Twain appears in response to Jan’s invocation; he’s her favorite author. Sometimes he’s a passenger, refusing to buckle and obstinately smoking a cigar. But he’s most fun when he’s just inexplicably there, rhymin’ and quippin’ for the audience. Some of his lines are the aphorisms rightly and wrongly attributed to the author, some are John Lennon lyrics. All are delivered with a cartoonish kind of “ain’t I a stinker” glee.
Bent’s Twain isn’t a gesture of realism; almost nothing in this play is. Instead, this is the quotable Twain of our dreams, inventing American literary celebrity on the lecture circuit and cultivating a public image as a cat-person. The play borrows a lot from pop culture, with some bits landing better than others. It’s definitely thrilling to see clips of iconic movies like Homeward Bound and My Best Friend’s Wedding projected as in-flight entertainment, but it also distracts from the hard work the actors are doing. Twain isn’t part of that problem. He even pitched in with the crew’s effort to come through the cabin and collect any trash, and the thrill I got when he graced my aisle returned me to my earliest childhood experiences with live theater, the wonderment of coming face to face with a figure of pure charisma.
Please note, there was trash to collect, because Smelta Airlines is blessedly generous with the snacks. Perhaps my deepest conviction when it comes to theatre is this: FOOD MAKES THEATRE FUN. This too is something I learned in childhood. Growing up, my brother and I always attended the Marilyn Bianchi Kids’ Playwriting Festival at the Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I’ll never forget the year one of the winning plays was about an ice cream man, and my big brother was one of the lucky audience members to be handed an ice cream sandwich by the star performer. Some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen recently, such as Three Rites: Liberty by Edisa Weeks and Liberian Girl in Brooklyn by Marcelle Davies-Lashley, both at Mabou Mines, have included communal, almost ritualistic eating. Feed your audience, folks. It’s the easiest way to win them over.
Bonnie’s Last Flight grapples with some weighty issues – regret, honesty, fidelity, aspiration, the degradation of air travel etiquette – and it packs a real emotional punch into the short time it takes to fly from New York to Chicago. By the time we were wheels down, I was in tears, and rooting for every last one of the Smelta crew. I also belly-laughed loud enough to disturb my seat-mate. (This is also SOP for me on airplanes; I like to watch comedies and laugh so loud to the silent screen that I look nuts.) I was left with one question though. We hear a couple times about Bonnie, the corgi in the cockpit, but nobody mentions her after we experience some unusually heavy turbulence. Is she okay up there? All I know about canine flying I learned from the story of the Soviet cosmo-dog Laika, so I was genuinely concerned. That being said, the final image that flashes on the in-flight entertainment screen is a photo of Bonnie smiling in Red Square, an emblem of her little doggy life well-lived. So I guess she made it to her final destination. We should all be so lucky.