The American Pilot, a CurtainUp New York premiere review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
The American Pilot

All I want to know is what has happened in my house.— The Farmer
America has happened.—The Captain

Anjali Bhimani  and Aaron Staton  in The American Pilot
Anjali Bhimani and Aaron Staton in The American Pilot
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's quite clear that The American Pilot, which premiered last year in London and is now playing at Manhattan Threatre Club's smaller theater, had its genesis in the not so clear motivations for the war in Iraq. Viewed as a commentary on that war and its still uncertain outcome, David Greig's harrowing drama is a case of art being depressingly overtaken by life. But for all its very real inspirational premise this is not an Iraq war drama, nor a pro or anti-American polemic.

Mr. Greig's story finds an American bomber pilot, a blonde Southerner named Jason Reinhardt (Aaron Staton), crash landing on foreign soil with his leg badly smashed and possible internal injuries. He becomes the allegorical center of a Rashomon-like tale that could be set in any number of Middle Eastern countries, or even Dafour. That undefined setting is underscored by the characters being generically named according to what they do (Farmer, Soldier, Captain, Trader), the only exceptions being the Pilot and the wife and daughter of the farmer who has rescued him from a nearby field. The Rashomon parallel rather than focusing on conflicting accounts by different witnesses, stems from the conflicting responses by the stressed out citizens to the disturbing presence of the American.

The fable-like story telling intermingles tensely realistic scenes with often poetic audience addressing monlogues. The first of these monologues comes from the Farmer (Ron Domingo) whose humble shed is now dominated by the American whose life he saved. To this gentle man the Pilot has an almost mythical beauty: "The American Pilot was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen. His skin was the colour of sand flecked through with gold. He was tall and he was strong and his eyes were as blue as the sky he fell from. Every time I looked at him a cloud of unbidden thoughts would rise in my mind like insects from disturbed grass. He might have been in the same room as us but he wasn’t like us. He seemed of a different kind entirely." And yet, trying to hold his family and farm together in a country besieged by some sort of never-ending civil war, the Pilot's presence is also unsettling, and the Farmer feels that the sooner he is gone from his home the better. His unease is shared by his practcal wife Sarah (Rita Wolf) but not his young daughter Evie (Anjali Bhimani) who's not only smitten with the Pilot but sees him as a sort of heaven sent messenger to bring hope to her life and that of her countrymen.

The Farmer's trepidation is borne out by the other locals who arrive to decide the Pilot's fate. For the Trader (Yusef Bulos) who also acts as a local counsellor, he posits the need to protect his position and, if possible, a means for profit. Thus, he examines the wounded man, pulls off his stars and stripes badge and smashes him in the head with his rifle butt. He pooh poohs the farmer's protest at this unwarranted cruelty by explaining that the wounded man is part of a country where the people have fabulous riches, but are "also devils who have no respect for women. . . and go around the world encouraging all kinds of debasements and wickednesses."

The Captain (Waleed F. Zuaiter), a weary guerilla fighter, and his Translator (Geoffrey Arend) pose the greatest danger to the wounded man. The former, though expected to be in charge admittedly doesn't have a clue as to what to do with the man with whom "in another world" he might have been friends. The young Translator's student experience in the United States left him resentful of its riches and power. These men's distrust and love-hate attitude to America and, by extension the Pilot, is fed by the hopelessness all around them and American lore absorbed thrugh personal experience, hearsay and television.

Another major factor influencing the response to the Pilot who has dropped like some human explosive into this already explosive world is the language barrier. Like the businessman in another recent Off-Broadway play, The Internationalist (review), the Pilot's only means for communicating with the strangers who saved his life and now seem to threaten it, is with some nonverbal attempts to connect (the music on his ipod, pictures of his family) and repeatedly trying to convey his and his country's power by repeatedly and firmly identifying himself as an officer of the United States Air Force whose safe return witll bring a reward whereas any harm coming to him will result in his country's vengeance.

Unlike The Internationalist in which the American abroad's foreign colleagues spoke English but shut him out by often speaking in an author-invented gibberish language, the dialogue here is entirely in English even though it's obvious that this is not the langugage spoken by anyone other than Pilot. Evie's English is limited to a few phrases and songs which precludes any meaningful communication. The Translator exacerbates his own less than fluent English by deliberately hostile omission and editing so that the Pilot's promise of rewards is twisted to focus on his bravado threats. Some of this miscommunication is quite funny, as when the Captain trying to understand the hip-hop music in the ipod listens for a minutes, finds it impossible and concludes that it's lmore likely to be some unbreakable code than music.

Comic relief is, however, in short supply on this stage and what there is can do little to defuse the grim reality of lives too far apart for understanding to prevail over suspicion and violence. The painful reality that makes this a catastrophe waiting to happen is summed up by the Captain when the Farmer, distressed at having his house turned into prison, asks for an explanation of what is happening in his house: "America has happened. . .Look at him, Farmer. He’s weak — a half-jar of life. If it was a fire it would barely sustain a flame. But that tiny quantity of life is easily the most powerful force within a hundred miles of here. You may as well have picked up a stone and found yourself with a handful of uranium."

While The American Pilot is neither pro or anti-American, the characters giving voice to the widening gap between the powerful and the powerless are for the most part more representative voices than individuals rounded and colored in real flesh tones. That's not to say that the actors don't portray their types well, with Yusef Bulos as the sly Trader, Anjali Bhimani as the Joan of Arc-like young girl and Waleed F. Zuaite as the weary Captain most successfully three-dimensional rather than figures in a fable.

Derek McLane's stark stone-walled set and Christopher Akerlind's gloomy lighting beautifully evoke the play's blend of other-worldly fable and all too painful reality. And while Lynne Meadow's direction is too unvarying and she would have been well advised to omit the intermission, the explosive climax is an uncompromising stunner.

With headlines blazing about ever more devastating mass bombings in Iraq, audiences can expect more playwrights like David Greig translating these depressing events into plays like this. If you prefer your serious themes dished up in a distinctly lighter, fluffier vein, trade in your ticket for one to No Regrets (review) in the larger MTC venue next door.

Directed by Lynne Meadow
Cast: Geoffrey Arend (the Translator), Anjali Bhimani (Evie), Brian Bielawski (Soldier No. 1), Yusef Bulos (the Trader), Josh Casaubon (Soldier No. 2), Ron Domingo (the Farmer), Aaron Staton (the American Pilot), Rita Wolf (Sarah) and Waleed F. Zuaiter (the Captain).
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Ilona Somogyi
Lights: Christopher Akerlind
Sound: Obadiah Eaves
Music: Composed and Performed by Benny Koonyevsky
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes includes intermission
n Theater Club, City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212
From October 19 to December 31, 2006; opening November 21st Tickets: $67.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 22nd performance
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