3 hijackers, 25 strangers, no NPCs

CoHo and playwright Tommy Smith's 's D.B. Cooper play "db" delivers the goods

Do you…

  • … have a nostalgic or forensic fascination with D.B. Cooper, an airplane hijacker and bank robber who parachuted from a Portland-based flight to freedom in 1971 and was never found?
  • … think that Mad Men would’ve been pretty two-dimensional without Peggy?
  • … grit your teeth through True Detective‘s plot-holes just to enjoy Matthew McConaghey’s caustic existential rants, and do you yearn to hear that dialogue style in a stronger story?
  • … have a thing for eternal enigmas and alternate realities, like Schrodinger’s Cat, the Mandela Affect, et cetera? Having given up on proving which thing is true, can you just appreciate the permanent uncertainty?
  • … sometimes wish your theater seat would rumble and quake while the lights flash, briefly transforming the play you’re seeing into an amusement park ride?

Then db, onstage now at CoHo Theatre, may be just the play for you!

It’s no coincidence that Tommy Smith and Teddy Bergman’s script for db, and CoHo’s premiere staging of it, both work on so many levels. Inspired by a life-long fascination with the D.B. Cooper legend, Smith and Bergman first developed a heavily-researched three-hour staged reading that fleshed out at least 10 different robbery suspects. With some workshopping, Smith whittled the script down to to a taut 75-minute play that proposes just three versions of the elusive Cooper character: a bipolar businessman who acquired the money to lure himself a wife, an out-of-work Vietnam vet with debts, and a transgender aviator who needed the cash for her surgery.

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green. Photo: Owen Carey

Even once the play was in production, with Isaac Lamb directing, they continued to perfect the writing. Their last revision, Smith revealed at Sunday’s talkback, happened just ten days before opening! While such rigor approaches neurosis, the payoff in this case is great. This heist story, which would easily lend itself to a trite, testosterone-drunk action flick  or a series like Unsolved Mysteries, becomes, with deft and diligent handling, a complex yet compelling piece of theater.

But how?

“When I’m creating a character, I always have to ask, ‘Who loves them?'” Smith explained. The most immediate and uncanny answer was the person who had the most contact with the robber during his crime, a flight attendant named Tina.

Cooper’s crime was a protracted affair, and in Smith’s version Tina was, throughout, a reluctant accomplice. First, the airline passenger charmed his way past security carrying a briefcase containing what he claimed was a bomb. Then he commandeered Tina to pass a note to the pilot, sit beside him, freshen his drink and relay his demands to a hostage negotiator over the phone. Overwhelmed but sweet-natured, Tina took her job in hospitality seriously, and attempted to keep Cooper comfortable in every way possible, including trying to make conversation during lulls between negotiations. There’s even some possibility that the stewardess felt genuine sexual tension with the domineering robber—an unfortunate dynamic that (in Smith’s retelling, anyway) haunted her future attempts at a love life with acute episodes of what we’d now call PTSD until eventually she gave up on dating altogether and joined a convent.

Co-producer Rebecca Lingafelter’s performance as Tina is the fulcrum of the story around which the three distinct versions of D.B. rotate. As each D.B. in turn sits in Tina’s section and delivers demands, each forms a distinct bond with Tina. Variously, the D.B.’s flirt, threaten, and opine, while Tina consistently tries to keep peace. We also get to watch each suspected D.B. interact with his (or in one case, her) respective friends and family outside of the crime.

Four actors, Dana Green, Alex Ramirez, Duffy Epstein and Don Kenneth Mason, split 28 roles among them. Epstein plays two equally commanding versions of D.B., and Green plays one. (The aforementioned True Detective-esque monologues are mostly hers.) But any time they’re not in the hot seat, the actors are busily dispatching the play’s remaining 25 characters, including various officials (Mason handles the lion’s share of these) and the robber’s friends and family. Amazingly, there’s no confusion. All the pieces fall into place, just as they apparently did during Cooper’s tidy heist. What’s more, each supporting character feels fully realized and unique—especially the female ones. Jo (Dana Green) is an expressive Southerner who airs her suspicions of her mysterious husband D.B. over the phone; Marla (Alex Ramirez) blossoms into an insouciant, seductive party girl as D.B.’s teen niece, and continues in that mode well into womanhood; Pat (Ramirez again), is the shier half of a couple that the female D.B. befriends, and she can’t decide whether to admire D.B.’s confident air or resent the newcomer’s power over her husband.

Alex Ramirez, Don Kenneth Mason, Dana Green. Photo: Owen Carey

These nuanced female characters (whose obsession over a male character, it should be noted, technically fails the Bechdel Test) may be most striking for what they’re not: They’re not NPC’s.

A term coined in the video game industry, NPC refers to a “Non-Playable Character” in a game—in other words, someone whose only purpose is to give the game’s main character advice or resources, or to play out one scene in a story, then disappear or die. They can be a prize or an obstacle, but they can’t control their own destiny. Painfully often, these characters are women. An innocent example is the Princess in classic Mario: you can save her, but you can’t be her. On the darker side of this trope, there are the prostitutes in a popular auto theft game: you can use and abuse them, but you can’t become them. (All moral implications aside, who wouldn’t want to play that game as a hooker? Working a corner between car thefts seems like next-level gameplay over just stealing.) Conceptually, NPC’s are a trope as old as time. From action movies to rap videos to certain Shakespeare plays, you find characters who are not only limited to supporting roles, but seem to fall short of a full assignation of their own motivations, their own humanity. They’re just there for Chuck Norris to kick. For Snoop Dogg to grope. For James Bond to bed.

Smith’s script mercifully denies D.B. any hapless flunkies and instead surrounds him with strangers with stories and emotions all their own. “They’re the ones reacting…coping…experiencing something,” he muses of the not-so-minor characters. “Besides, I think in drama we’ve already fully investigated ‘how sad a guy can be.’ I’m not very interested in that.”

Me neither. But I was definitely intrigued by db.

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db continues through February 4 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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