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Theatre in Review: The Body of an American (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Michael Cumpsty. Photo: James Leynse

The Body of an American is about a reporter who gets his story and a playwright who doesn't -- and neither of them is very happy about it. Paul Watson is a real-life Canadian photojournalist who has spent the vast majority of his life in war zones, documenting horrifying extremes of human brutality. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his shot of the body of an American Blackhawk pilot being desecrated by a mob in a street in Mogadishu. The award notwithstanding, the photo is, to his mind, a dubious achievement. When the radio interviewer Terry Gross mentions that the image had an extraordinary impact, Watson replies that indeed it did: It put enough heat on Bill Clinton to withdraw from Somalia, and helped fuel his reluctance to get involved in Rwanda, "where 800,000 people were killed in a hundred days." What bothers him most, however, is that "Al-Qaeda learned a lot from the propaganda value of that photograph...I think it's safe to say, Take all of the events that happened, but remove the photograph, and al-Qaeda would not have chased us out of Somalia, Bin Laden would not have been able to say to his followers, Look, we're able to do this, we only need small victories to defeat history's greatest military. After my photograph, 9/11 and the never-ending war on terror."

Such comments are, to say the least, unusual, coming from one of the journalistic profession, whose members are more typically given to defending whatever liberties they enjoy. As such, it provides a clue to Watson's grandiosity and self-punishing nature, both of which drive him to roam from Mogadishu to Kabul to Baghdad in search of something he can never bring himself to name. Referring to the local translators and bodyguards who make his job possible, he says, "That's always been the hardest part of my job: convincing good people who get none of a byline's ego boost to risk their lives because I've decided a story is worth dying for." And there is the experience that haunts him, no matter where he travels: The memory of standing over Sgt. William David Cleveland's body on that street in Mogadishu, hearing, just before taking the photo, a ghostly voice saying, "If you do this, I will own you forever."

Elusive, sardonic, his soul scarred by repeatedly paying witness to the unthinkable, Watson is a character any playwright would love. He certainly captivated the playwright Dan O'Brien, which is why we have The Body of an American. But the play is anything but a conventional biography; instead, it's an account of O'Brien's ultimately unsuccessful struggle to figure out what makes Watson tick.

Much of the first half of The Body of an American follows O'Brien's on-and-off email correspondence with Watson. The journalist doesn't object to being made the protagonist of a play, but he doesn't make it easy for O'Brien, either, repeatedly breaking off communication, and, after a period of silence, turning up in another godforsaken location. He is a master at keeping O'Brien hooked with comments about his adventures. ("I just got back from Kabul, where I found it's easy to buy stolen US military hard drives at an Afghan bazaar outside Bagram air base.") He also easily deflects the playwright's attempts at arranging a meeting.

In contrast, O'Brien is the very model of a modern playwright, living on commissions and teaching jobs, eventually ending up in Los Angeles, where his wife pursues an acting career. Compared to Watson, his life seems positively cosseted -- so much so that his repeated statements of identification with the journalist come to seem like rather embarrassing expressions of bravado. But, as the play moves into its middle section, a sadder, more complex picture of both men begins to appear. As O'Brien notes, there's something a little too obviously self-invented about Watson: "Everything has this Hemingway patina to it. This old-school journalistic swagger." Probing Watson, a number of troubling details emerge: The father he never knew. The mother, about whom he will only say, "She's the strongest person I know." The boyhood friend who killed himself. The adolescence spent drinking and using drugs. The fact that he pursues a physically dangerous profession despite the fact that he was born with only one hand. (This is yet another unsolved mystery; he insists that thalidomide had nothing to do with it.)

Even more revealing is the scene in a psychiatrist's office in Johannesburg. Watson has gone there to obtain new meds with which to numb himself, but, under pressure, he reveals the bizarre details of his personal life, which is shared with a woman who, on the face of it, is a practiced emotional sadist. (How his son fits into this arrangement is, alarmingly, never made clear.) It is around this time that the reporter turns the tables on the playwright, interrogating O'Brien about his family history, which is marked by a distinctive strangeness of its own. (You could do an entire play about O'Brien's visit home just before his wedding.) Suddenly, we see that they are something of a matched set, both left hollow by deeply scarring experiences and both unwilling to probe their wounds. And yet their professional choices are, ultimately, defined by the sorrows they cannot face.

Despite these gripping revelations, the rest of The Body of an American disappoints. O'Brien practices a kind of dramatic rope-a-dope: O'Brien goes to the Arctic, where Watson is enduring a kind of professional exile; they experience a sort-of bonding session that proves to be rather anticlimactic; this is followed by a sequence in which Watson tracks down Sgt. Cleveland's family, seeking some sort of absolution. (They are, understandably, unhappy that his dead body has been made a familiar object worldwide.) This is yet another effort that ends without resolution. By this point, it's clear that The Body of an American, which is filled with intriguing bits and pieces, is less a drama than a pair of character sketches that peaks long before the final curtain.

Still, Jo Bonney's production is never dull, thanks to the canny, cagey work of Michael Cumpsty (Watson) and Michael Crane (O'Brien). Both characters are skilled at emotional poker, their cards affixed firmly to their vests; watching each man trying to get the other to fold has its fascinations. Cumpsty has a way of laughing at inappropriate moments, sending signals of interior distress, and Crane's eerily detached account of a family visit following his brother's suicide attempt sets off all sorts of psychological alarm bells. Both men easily slip into each other's roles and they also take on a variety of supporting characters.

Richard Hoover's understated set, an asymmetric arrangement of oddly shaped wood panels, provides an ideal screen for Alex Basco Koch's projections of rioting African mobs, the Princeton campus, a radio studio, and arctic snowcaps, among others. Ilona Somogyi's costumes and Lap Chi Chu's lighting are equally solid, as is Darron L West's sound design, which includes such effects as helicopters in flight, angry mobs, applause, arctic winds, and barking huskies.

The Body of an American is yet another new play that might arguably work better in prose form, which would allow for a fuller exploration of both men without trying to force some kind of dramatic confrontation between them. Even so, a week after attending the play, both characters have proven to be stubbornly hard to forget. -- David Barbour

(23 February 2016)

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