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American Pilot, at MTC's Stage II

The American Pilot, David Greig's new play, is a remarkable piece of work, and MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow has done a bang-up job of directing it. I don't think I'd seen any of the cast members before, and most of them had not appeared on Broadway, but they were all super, and I expect to see more of them. As I say perhaps too often, one of the pleasures of frequenting the New York theatre is the chance to see actors routinely tackle wildly different roles, something not quite a handful of Hollywood actors are allowed to do.

The story is simple. An American Pilot (Aaron Staton) crashes his plane in a remote Eurasian village that is under the control of a guerilla opposition. The government at "the capital" is a happy recipient of US aid, so the Pilot has parachuted into the wrong part of the right country. That's bad enough. His right calf is broken and he's pretty roughed up. The play begins when the Farmer (Ron Domingo) who found him in the countryside and carried him back to his shed brings in the Trader (Yusef Bulos), a councilor who represents such civic authority as the village enjoys. The trader sees at once that the Captain, the distract commander, must be called in. Meanwhile, the Farmer's wife, Sarah (Rita Wolf), is very unhappy about the Pilot's presence in her home, while his daughter, Evie (Anjali Bhimani), regards the wounded man as a god who has come to save her from her village.

When the Captain (Waleed F Zuaiter) arrives, with a Translator/son-in-law (Geoffrey Arend) who has spent time in the United States, he is plunged into uncertainty about what to do with the Pilot. Slit his throat on video, or get him to a hospital? The Captain, suspecting that, whatever he does, he's doomed, is both ritually cruel and genuinely kind to the Pilot. The miracle of the play is that, although everyone onstage is speaking English, we know that the Pilot can neither understand to make himself understood to anybody but Evie (who has seen a bit of television) and the Translator. This is not a play about cultural interaction. The Pilot, laid out against some sacks from beginning to end, is a sort of precious meteorite, an American. His skin is "the color of sand" and his eyes are "as blue as the sky from which he fell." He is, to the villagers, a wounded god. He is also a very dangerous one, inspiring the comic but imprudent dreams of gain and glory that preoccupy his captors and inevitably bright about an awful resolution.

Wisely, Mr Greig leaves the current Iraqi misadventure in the background. It's in his interest to do so. His play has two realms, the divided country in which the action takes place, and a fabulous but imaginary "America." There is nothing of which the villagers think Americans incapable. The American Pilot might have taken place at any time over the past ten years at least, and I expect that it will be current for some time. It is emphatically not a play about the Middle East.

As tight as the suspense about the young man's fate might be, The American Pilot is witty where it might have been grim. Mr Greig is a nimble entertainer, and his fleet two-act show never drags for an instant. Even the six monologues - one for each of the locals - sail by easily. As I say, Ms Meadow's direction is superb. Derek McLane (sets), Ilona Somgyi (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lighting) and Obadiah Eaves (sound) all contribute to a memorable production. I hope I don't give anything away by praising the Fight Director, J David Brimmer. (November 2006)

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