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The American Pilot

David Greig's blunt but powerful play tackles the anti-American sentiment caused by the Iraqi war. logo
Anjali Bhimani, Aaron Staton, Ron Domingo,
and Waleed F. Zuaiter in The American Pilot
(© Carol Rosegg)
The global spike in anti-American sentiment as a result of the Iraqi war is beginning to edge into domestic literature and art like a spreading stain on Betsy Ross' flag. David Greig's new play, The American Pilot, which is getting its American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, may not be the first of its dark kind, but there's no denying that it lays out the unsettling condition in extremely clear terms. For that reason, it isn't an easy 90 minutes (including intermission) to endure in a theater seat, but it's got the "thanks, I needed that" factor.

The crude farmer's shed that Derek McLane has designed as the drama's lone set could be in any number of third world countries -- or, as Greig has planned it, in all of them. (The program simply stipulates the setting as "a small farm, high up in a rural valley, in a country which has been mired in civil war and conflict for many years.") Nonetheless, the dramatist does intend his audience to be thinking Iraq or Afghanistan or any number of countries where the bottom-line reason for United States military presence is at best ambiguous and at worst devoid of unadulterated altruistic interest in disseminating democratic thought.

As the play begins, the American pilot Jason Reinhardt (Aaron Staton) is lying in the shed of a local former (Ron Domingo), dazed and injured, but listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg through earpieces. He's a bomber pilot who's crashed into the side of a mountain and is now haltingly recovering his senses. The farmer has brought a local trader and village counselor (Yusef Bulos) to see the sheltered man. The trader's first gesture is smacking the pilot on the side of his head with the butt of a rifle he's carrying, which provokes this exchange: Farmer: "I just didn't expect you to hit him." Trader: "He's American. On his uniform -- that's the American flag." The very sight of the flag is enough to provoke violence.

It's important to establish that Greig isn't interested merely in questioning the repercussions of underhanded American foreign policy. He understands that contemporary world politics is not -- if it ever was -- black-and-white, cut-and-dried. By concentrating on an isolated incident but intending it to represent a much larger situation, he's suggesting a broader look at American attitudes and the world's responses to them, especially three characters unsympathetic to the title figure: the trader, the rebel captain (Waleed F. Zuaiter), and a translator called Matthew (Geoffrey Arend), who was educated in the United States. The three other main characters are either sympathetic to Reinhardt or neutral: the farmer, his accommodating wife Sarah (Rita Wolf), and 16-year-old daughter Evie (Anjali Bhimani). Indeed, where the captain feels obligated to treat the pilot as a prisoner of war, Evie sees him as a savior and acts accordingly throughout.

Here's how fair Greig insists on being in the shades-of-gray department. He has no interest in displaying the suffering Jason Reinhardt as an all-American cipher more sinned against than sinning, this despite the work's opening monologue in which the farmer, standing in lighting designer Christopher Akerlind's separate spotlight, says: "The American pilot was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen. He might have been in the same room as us but he wasn't like us. He seemed of a different kind entirely."

Desperate to save his skin, Reinhardt is arrogant yet noble. He cowers whenever a rifle or pistol is pointed at him, but he also threatens imminent retaliation from buddies who must be searching for him. He doesn't stop short of firing obscenities, either. Indeed, Greig has written Reinhardt as an American son of privilege with the pluses and minuses implied, and he's portrayed as such by Aaron Staton, who's as striking as the farmer claims. Under Lynne Meadow's urgent direction, the rest of the players are equally on target -- especially Zuaiter as a man trying to figure out the best tactics in an untenable position.

It's true that Greig wields The American Pilot as if he's a mugger with a blunt instrument. He probably could have produced a more refined illustration of his pessimistic, realistic take on current affairs. But this way, he gets your attention and leaves you holding your aching head.

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