“The Body of an American” Requires You to Think

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

 How do war correspondents and photojournalists cope with the constant barrage of violence, tragedy and human suffering that they record and present to the world on a daily basis? After all they jump from one disaster/war zone to another.

That is part of the question asked and discussed in the play The Body of an American now at Hartford Stage through Jan. 31.  The co-production with Primary Stages’ Cherry Lane Theater in NYC will transfer to the off-Broadway theater beginning in February and running through March 20.

This is not an easy play – the subject matter and the way it is presented requires your involvement.

It is based on reality. Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson won the Pulitzer Prize for a photo he took in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, (The incident was the basis for the film Black Hawk Down). American and other forces were trying to keep the peace between opposing clans and alleviate starvation.  A black hawk helicopter was downed killing all, but one soldier was carted through the streets by mobs and his body attacked.  Watson photographed it.  The photo went viral, as they now say, and some say it caused the US to be more reluctant to fight al-qaeda, who was involved in the activities.  Watson has said that although the soldier (David Cleveland) was dead, he heard the solider say “If you do this, I will own your forever.”

Those words haunted Watson. Playwright Dan O’Brien had contacted Watson, after Watson’s book, Where War Lives, was published.  O’Brien thought there was a play in Watson’s experience and the two emailed sporadically back and forth before finally meeting in the arctic region of Canada.

This play is about their relationship as much as it is about Watson and the effect the photo had on him.  It also is about the role of the war correspondent/photojournalist in our society, as a witness to man’s inhumanity to other men.

In this 90 minute piece, scenes and time mutate constantly.  After a brief opening scene where both actors are playing Paul, we go to a NPR interview with Watson by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  Soon we are in Mogadishu when Paul takes the photo.

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

From there we go back and forward –to Indonesia where Watson lives, Canada, and we see O’Brien from Wisconsin to California and more. Michael Cumpsty is Paul – he becomes other  characters occasionally, but Michael Crane is not only Dan but Terry Gross, David Cleveland’s brother, Watson’s interpreter when he took the photo, Mother Teresa (Watson met her)  and others.

This play has already received the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the PEN Center USA Award for Drama and the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize.  Yet while the issues are fascinating, this play left me with multiple questions.  Watson clearly has PSTD from his experiences, but it unclear why O’Brien seems to also suffer. While his family may have been dysfunctional, we are not told anything that would seem horrendous.  Other questions are left unanswered, particularly about Watson’s marriage.  He gives us conflicting information in talking with Dan, in phone conversations and with a psychiatrist he sees.

In fact, though it is just 90+ minutes, at times it seemed to drag despite fine performances. Cumpsty makes us feel Watson’s conflicting emotions about what he did and his career in general.  He is truly haunted by those words, but is not sure what they really mean.  Crane gives us an equally fine performance as O’Brien.  But the playwright doesn’t convince me that these two men would be friends. At times it almost seems like O’Brien is stalking Watson.

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Director Jo Bonney has done a fine job in keeping the play moving which is cinematic in scope with what you could see as fade outs, flashbacks, and more..

Bonney is aided by the fine projections by Alex Basco Koch (which include the prize winning photo), sound design by Darron L. West and lighting design by Lap Chi Chu.

The Body of an American is one of those plays that you will continue to think about and to talk about.  Isn’t that what good theater should do.

The Body of an American is Primary Stages’ Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St., New York City through March 20. For tickets visit primarystages.org.

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