David Pilot

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Ever have that experience where you feel almost taken hostage by your host? Sorta like a “guestage?” That’s the situation facing Tom (James Leaf) and Diane (Mariah Sage), two teachers—a prof, she earns twice his salary, he’s only a poet and high school teacher—who have car troubles on a road-trip. When we meet them they’ve been brought to the home of Ivan (Daniel White) and Ruth (Irina Kaplan), husband and wife—he, big, burly, effusively and physically friendly; she, kittenish and confiding—after an afternoon of drinks at a roadhouse.

Ivan is the sort of host who thrives on some hopped-up idea of copacetic encounters, looking for openings and outpourings. Ruth just seems ecstatic at having some longed-for company even if she’s shy about playing the hostess (it means having to cook and clean, y’know). We can tell that days on the road seem to be exposing the faultlines in Tom and Diane’s relationship, while Ivan’s status as a member of a Special Operations Unit—a military mercenary, in other words—and Ruth’s as an ex-stripper make them, one would imagine, interesting interlocutors for two teachers at large.

If the idea of two couples downing vast amounts of liquor and talking, squabbling, confessing, and flirting far into the night makes you recall George and Martha hosting Nick and Honey, that’s fitting enough, since this kind of theatrical evening probably dates—in its sense of unspecified unease—from Albee’s play of the early Sixties, but Steven Bellwood’s play, directed by James Leaf, is far less arcane in the kinds of “games” going on, though one is never quite sure, with Ivan, if or when his sense of grievance might turn into something ugly. Nor, for that matter, Diane’s, who seems to play with the idea of, Martha-like, exposing her partner’s frailties.

Tom, the less developed character here, has a tendency to crib lines from Eliot or Shakespeare, and even taking a psilocybin mushroom doesn’t make him more loquacious, or interesting, for that matter. He’s sort of the witness more than anything, though Leaf gives him some fire when he tries to argue for Ivan's trustworthiness against Diane’s fears for Ruth’s safety. Kaplan’s Ruth is at times clueless but—as a former professional stripper—she also knows how to be tough and how to flaunt her sexiness. Ruth is given two pathetic moments, and that’s perhaps one too many—the first, in the first act, might recall “the bit about the kid” in Virgina Woolf, in an oddly literal way; the other precipitates the climax and comes a bit out of nowhere.

Bellwood seems to want to play on the educated classes’ discomfort with the less educated, a discomfort that can be protective, projective, and quite misguided. Ruth’s role in her marriage is stronger than Diane assumes it is, blinded by her own intimidation when faced with preachy Ivan, his domestic arsenal, his jokey Obama mask, and his “what you need is a real man” innuendo. Played by Daniel White with large-as-life gusto, Ivan is the live-wire here and our time in his home may make us uncomfortable, but he’s really just trying to have a good time. In the end, the others just aren’t up for it, particularly Diane who, as played by Sage, maintains a brittle sense of timid intelligence and a belief that others just aren’t as smart as she is. More could be done to express what we’re to make of her attachment to Ruth, but as it is, Diane is the character who stands to be changed most profoundly by what takes place.

The staging—all on one level in the first half, and with a provocative split between levels in the second—is surprisingly intimate given the large, multipurpose room at the Whitney Arts Center—and the cast swiftly establishes a naturalistic rhythm that gets us from awkward-but-well-meaning strangers meeting to exposures, both purposeful and unthinking, that make us worry where it’s all going.

The Specials is entertaining, suspenseful, and full of the kind of unease common not only to being strangers in a strange home, but also to being strangers in our own land.

“Who’s afraid of guns and drugs and the Big Bad Wolf, Martha?” “I am, George, I am.”


Three more shows: Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20 & 21, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 22, at 3 p.m.

The Whitney Arts Center, 591 Whitney Avenue, New Haven

The Specials by Steve Bellwood Directed by James Leaf Produced and Assistant Directed by David Pilot

Cast: Mariah Sage, James Leaf, Irina Kaplan, Daniel White

Co-producers: Margaret Carl, Annia Bu, James Leaf, Steve Bellwood; Stage Manager: Beatrix Roller; Assistant Stage Manager, Set and Costume Designer: Lisette Lux; House Managers: Baileigh Rae Massey, John Roeller, Claire Gabriele; Publicity: Jane Mills


New Local Theater

Now that we’re safely past Labor Day and gaining on the ostensible last day of summer (somewhere around the 21st), theater is coming alive again in New Haven. This coming weekend and the following a new play called The Specials has its run on Whitney Avenue in New Haven.

Written by New Haven playwright Steve Bellwood, The Specials presents a meeting/confrontation between two couples: an academic couple, Tom and Diane, are taking a roadtrip and spatting when their car breaks down. Another couple comes to their assistance: Ivan, an ex-military man, and his wife Ruth, an ex-stripper. Is it the classic comedy of unlikely bedfellows, or is something more harrowing in store? Expect the unpredictable as the couples get to know each other and, one suspects, themselves. According to producer David Pilot, the show is about “healing as much as about confrontation.” The question behind it all is the question of what, if anything, provides social cohesion in our increasingly polarized America.

Pilot is a writer, director and filmmaker, who has taken part in the New York International Fringe Festival and, most recently, his play Hans: A Case Study—from a famous case of Freud’s—was staged at the West End Theatre in New York in 2012. He and playwright Bellwood, a member of Theatre Artists Workshop in Norwalk and a performer around New Haven as a “stand-up storyteller,” have been collaborating on musical monologues. Bellwood encountered director/actor Leaf—who directed a performance of Beckett’s Catastrophe at the Institute Library last year and acted in the New Haven Theater Company’s production of Urinetown—at Never Ending Books, the duo became a trio, and they set about to stage Bellwood’s play. For the production, Pilot has teamed with co-producers Annia Bu, an award-winning actress from Cuba, and Margaret Carl, twenty-five-year veteran of numerous local companies including Elm Shakespeare, the Arts and Ideas Festivals, and other productions with Pilot at the company Jackdaw-Pike.

In addition to Leaf as Tom, the cast includes Mariah Sage (Diane), of the New Haven-based company Theatre 4, Daniel J. White (Ivan), who has acted in Bridgeport and at the Westport Community Theatre, and Irina Kaplan (Ruth), an MFA candidate at the Actors Studio Drama School who has worked at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre and at Classic Stage Company in New York.

The play will be presented at The Whitney Arts Center, 591 Whitney Avenue, New Haven Sat. 9/14 at 8 p.m. Sun. 9/15 at 3 p.m. Fri. 9/20 at 8 p.m. Sat. 9/21 at 8 p.m. Sun. 9/22 at 3 p.m.

$15, suggested donation

A reception, as the culmination of Jack-Daw Pike's indiegogo campaign for funds to produce local theater, will be held on October 5th, 7-10 p.m., at Luck & Levity Brew Shop, 118 Court Street, New Haven.  The evening will feature free music, film, poetry, and even a theater quiz and secret prizes.  For more info, see the contacts on the poster above.