For two peoples supposedly speaking different languages, the words they're using all sound an awful lot like English. So why can't they understand each other? Why indeed, wonders David Greig in his fascinating new play The American Pilot, which is now premiering at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Maybe the problem isn't that we all speak in different tongues, but that we don't all listen with the same ears?
This might be an oversimplification of the troubles between the United States and the rest of the world at the moment, but it's not much of one. Greig sees communication as the both the disease and the cure, with words - comprehensible or otherwise - more violent than most munitions. And the blood they spill is often unnecessary: We're all human, Greig argues, and we'll get much farther in life if we realize that and stop tripping ourselves up on minor considerations like language and skin color.
As if to prove this, the play has been written and directed (by Lynne Meadow) to remove as many of these barriers as possible. All the characters speak with their compatriots in plain and unadorned contemporary English. And though only one major character is American, and looks it (the title character is a golden-haired, golden-skinned golden boy from the South), the others have been cast with an apparent disregard for the performers' ethnicities.
But they do look different enough from Aaron Staton, the actor playing the pilot, to immediately establish an "us vs. them" dynamic. This makes it easier to accept the story that the pilot crashed his plane while flying over an unnamed civil war-torn country, and was rescued by a compassionate farmer (Ron Domingo) who is himself caught in the conflict, and thus at the mercy of the revolutionary Captain (Waleed F. Zuaiter) who considers the pilot's presence an ideal bargaining chip.
Maybe. The Captain is not necessarily the violent stalwart he initially seems, and might have other plans for the pilot, if only he could express them in a language they both speak. Even the Captain's translator (Geoffrey Arend) can't articulate every word of the Captain's complex feelings for both his country and the pilot's. The one who comes closest is the farmer's daughter, Evie (Anjali Bhimani) - her English isn't much better than the translator's, but she connects with the pilot on a deeper, more spiritual level, which could make all the difference. Or could it just lead to more uprisings and bloodshed?
Greig's most impressive trick is allowing you to hear and follow both sides of the story, but preventing you from sympathizing with either group by restricting interaction between them. Operating independently, neither provides you with enough information about its true intentions. And as he's purposefully unspecific about the locale (you can perhaps presume the Middle East, but it doesn't feel especially Iraq-like), even events you think you can easily interpret might give you pause: When the Captain produces a video camera, for example, what kind of statement does he really want to make?
Nothing means exactly what you think it does, and things seldom unfold exactly as you expect, right up through the violent and ambiguous final scene. (A brief coda, not even present in the script, takes the play in a more baldly political direction that robs the play of some of its inconclusive charm.) That's no small accomplishment: For a play with few earth-shattering ideas and no life-changing speeches, this one nonetheless feels like it has legitimate size, scope, and a rich story to tell.
That story could be told more effectively: Meadow's direction tends toward the static, never evoking quite the proper sense of a roiling international incident waiting to happen. And many of the performers don't explore the uncertainties in which they're drowning in particularly provocative ways: Staton plays a stereotypical dumb-jock military man, Bhimani is innocence hurtling toward corruption, Zuaiter is a passionate freedom-fighter... A lot of Greig's concerns never take form in the characterizations.
That doesn't, however, diminish the play's ultimate effectiveness, as it draws much of its drama from your own preconceptions about America's foreign policy, its role in world affairs, and how its recent actions have affected both. If Greig won't coddle those opinions outright, nor will he openly defy them: The world, he's saying, is what you make it. Much like communication itself.
This all has some strong similarities to another recent Off-Broadway opening, The Internationalist, at the Vineyard Theatre. There, an American businessman arrives in an unfamiliar country with an even more unfamiliar language, and must establish and maintain professional and personal relationships without definite knowledge of what's happening or being said around him. Of course, we can't understand the language either, so we're in the same boat he is. Greig sees everyone as in the same boat, which is rapidly taking on water. The only choice is to start bailing, and if the cause at times seems hopeless, it's never too late to start.
The American Pilot