You know that most of the characters you see portrayed on the small cockpit set will be dead in five or 10 minutes. One crash after another, for an uninterrupted hour and a quarter. After each scene, a slide shows the death toll on that flight: 24 on one, 68 on another, 520 on a Japanese jumbo jet. The evening's tally is 793 dead, very few survivors.
You know this already, and yet each scene is a fresh knot in your gut. You know this, and you don't care that almost every line is technobabble that only aviation professionals and buffs will fully understand. Because you know that these scenes faithfully depict the final moments of actual people. You realize that you or someone you love could have sat terrified in the cabins behind those cockpits, or may face some future crash. You know better, but you hope that because this is live theater, this time just maybe one of those people will figure out how to save the plane and the souls on board.
Foreknowledge of each scene's catastrophic outcome raises the tension, which is intensified by the hyper-realistic sound design of Jamie Mereness and live audio mix by Kevin Reilly. You want to shake some sense into the bored, gum-popping flight attendants who rush through the safety instructions by rote and the passengers who ignore them, even though you know that evacuation will not be an option after most of the ugly crashes about to occur. When, amid flirtatious banter between a cockpit crew and the flight attendants, the copilot off-handedly notes ice building up on the fuselage, you want to tell them to shut up and pay attention because that's the clue that in a few minutes an alarm will go off and the plane will roll and crash before the crew can react.
You don't get the feeling that the pilots are incompetent or foolish, though. Very few of the root problems have anything to do with pilot error. Because geese are sucked into the engines, 24 people die. Because mechanics cover an aircraft's static ports while washing the plane and never remove the tape, the pilots discover only after takeoff that cockpit's instruments are unusable, and 70 people die. Because of poor maintenance, a bulkhead blows and after a valiant effort to control the plane, 520 people die.
Each crew reacts to its situation a bit differently. An American Airlines pilot is slightly uneasy because he knows he'll face nasty turbulence when he tries to land in Connecticut, but has no idea that his real problem will be the trees he slams into because his altimeter setting is incorrect. A Japanese pilot and first officer maintain a strictly formal if frantic chain-of-command relationship, while the captain and first officer of an Aeroperu flight out of Lima subtly contend for dominance as one attempts to keep the plane in the air while the other flips desperately though a huge manual trying to figure out what's going on; both become exasperated, but do everything they can to stay aloft.
The most complex, long and frustrating scene comes last. The tail-mounted engine blows on a United Airlines flight approaching Sioux City. Theoretically, the plane should function adequately for a safe landing on its remaining engines, but as the cockpit crew gradually learns, the explosion has damaged an assembly that powers the plane's flight controls. They can't even turn the plane right, let alone manage finer control, as they contend a cascade of failures. This scene also offers brief moments of unexpected, understated humor, as the level-headed captain (played by Patrick Daniels) wryly comments on the dubious help he's getting from the ground.
As you know from all the captain's greetings you've heard, airline pilots are not the most colorful people around, at least not on the job. So almost every character on stage is something of a poker-faced Jack Webb clone. They do not pause to allow their lives to flash before their eyes, they do not pray to their gods, they do not record farewells to their families, they do not damn the incompetence of others in the airline industry. To the very last second, they focus on identifying the problem, overcoming it and keeping their aircraft under control.
If you want melodrama, rent Airport. If you want to see doomed professionals struggling to make the right decisions under impossible circumstances, see Charlie Victor Romeo.