IF THERE'S a third rail in American letters right now, it seems to be drone warfare, with drones most often used as props, as atmosphere, as inanimate harbingers of annihilation.
So it was with a very guarded optimism that I went in for CoHo Productions' version of George Brant's Grounded (which is also being produced Off Broadway, with Anne Hathaway acting and Julie Taymor directing). In Grounded, a one-woman show starring Rebecca Lingafelter, an F-16 fighter pilot finds herself relegated to drone duty—the "Chair Force"—upon returning from maternity leave. She's a wife and mother and pilot, "top shit" in the Air Force and the bar and the bedroom. But she's never had to be all of those things at once, and that's what the Chair Force offers: workaday wartime with nights at home. Sounds ideal, and our pilot tries very hard to convince herself it is. But of course it's not. As she puts it, "It would be a different book, The Odyssey, if Odysseus came home every day."
While adjustment to civilian life is a struggle for any soldier, Brant wants to explore the consequences of forcing that readjustment every day, and Lingafelter is compelling as she works through it—both sympathetic and repellent, violent and obsessive and loving. The fighter pilot is top shit, but the drone pilot, with her all-seeing eye and instant destruction, is God.
Lingafelter is at her best when the script gives her something interesting to do: At her most charming, heartbreaking weirdest, she goes on a long tangent imagining other eyes-in-the-sky, outsourced jobs requiring Indians to surveil fat Americans in department store dressing rooms. Clearly, she's unraveling. Her husband knows, her superiors know, and of course the audience knows, even if she never does. Brant's script runs through that process too quickly to really sell it, but director Issac Lamb paces the play impeccably, buffeting Lingafelter's performance with dramatic lightplay and harsh static sound until it's as hypnotically violent as a god's eye view of warfare.
Unfortunately, the pilot remains unaware of that reality, turning into a cartoon of insanity; instead of the ethically challenging and politically demanding drone story we need, Grounded becomes just another in the long, long, long tradition of overblown studies in unexamined madness. And with the distasteful decision to scrap any sense of political or ethical consequence, instead raising the house lights and descending in its final seconds to a sloppily broken fourth wall, Grounded exposes not the audience's guilt and arrogance, but the playwright's.