“The Body of an American,” the new play by Daniel O’Brien that opened on Wednesday evening, January 13 at Hartford Stage, has one of the most audacious concepts for an evening of theater that I’ve ever encountered.
O’Brien himself, nearing the end of a fellowship during which he was supposed to complete a play, hears an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with globe-trotting war photographer Paul Watson describing how he has been haunted by a Pulitzer-Prize winning photo he took in Mogadishu, Somalia, of a dead American soldier’s body being desecrated by a local mob. As he was about to take the photo, Watson swears he heard the dead soldier speak to him, saying, “If you take this photo, I will own you forever.”
Since O’Brien was trying to write a play about ghosts, he thought that he could gain some insight from Watson and so began an email correspondence that lasted over two years until the two had a chance to finally meet. Over the course of their correspondence, O’Brien apparently started drafting a play about Watson, taking elements of their conversations as well as details from Watson’s book on war reporting, “Where War Lives.” In part because of Watson’s own reluctance to relive certain moments from his past and because of the intense bond that O’Brien developed for his subject, the playwright injected himself directly into his plot. As a result, the completed play is as much, if not more, about whatever ghosts are bothering the character named Dan O’Brien as it is about the haunting of Paul Watson by the ghost of Sgt. William David Cleveland, the soldier whose body Watson photographed.
As you watch “The Body of an American,” you are indeed confronted by the chutzpah of O’Brien to try to compare his troubles and issues to those of Watson’s. Yet at the same time, the character of O’Brien stresses out on that very same issue, as he tries to establish comparisons between his life and Watson’s in order to cement their friendship. It turns out that O’Brien is one of the very few people that the solitary, somewhat reclusive Watson has opened up to, and in fact, the 14-year older photographer ends up serving as a mentor to the younger playwright during their long-distance correspondence by offering tips on writing and other worldly advice. From the way in which O’Brien presents their relationship, it seems that Watson enjoys their correspondence as much as O’Brien does, although Watson’s travels to various battle fronts sometimes prevents timely communication.
The audience gleans much of the information about how Watson feels haunted from that interview on “Fresh Air,” restaged here at the top of the play. Watson hints at the guilt he feels that the soldier’s desecration earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a reputation as one of the boldest and riskiest war photographers. He outright states in the interview that the worldwide distribution of the photo led, in his somewhat vaunted opinion, to America’s withdrawal from Somalia which led to the rise of Al Qaeda and thus 9/11, as well as to Bill Clinton’s decision not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide.
The centerpiece of the play is O’Brien’s recreation of the first time the two men meet in person, while the native Canadian Watson is on assignment in his country’s arctic region. The meeting does not go as well as O’Brien hoped, as the welcoming, but reticent Watson offers no great insights or, as he calls it, great “epiphanies” for the younger playwright. It’s a friendly visit for sure, complicated by a multi-day blizzard that includes adventures on the rapidly melting ice shelf, but it fails to provide O’Brien, who we discover has mysteriously been disowned by his family, with whatever he has been looking for.
Or has it? Look, he’s seemingly gotten a play out this experience, one that has been produced in London and several other locations around the United States, and after Hartford will make its New York debut at off-Broadway’s Primary Stages. O’Brien has written a well-received book of poetry based on Watson’s experiences called “War Reporter,” and has contributed a libretto to an opera on the subject. Hey, wait a second—O’Brien has pulled a Watson on Watson. Just as Watson benefited from the life and death of a young soldier—unintentionally or not—O’Brien has now taken Watson’s story and let it not only resolve his writer’s block but also propel him into international fame as playwright and poet. “The Body of an American” has already won several prestigious awards including the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize, the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama. To top that off, O’Brien’s book of poetry, “War Reporter” also won the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, a prestigious British poetry award. From this perspective, “The Body of an American” is an even more audacious accomplishment, or to use the popular word of the moment very “meta.” It could even be titled “The Body of a Canadian” in an ironic reference to the life that helped O’Brien make his name.
Fortunately for the audience, O’Brien does possess great instincts as a playwright which assure that the evening never becomes static. With only two actors, he creates a full array of characters in addition to the two individuals at the center of the drama, including appearances by Terry Gross herself, various hotel clerks and air stewards, a veteran Arctic guide and relatives and associates of O’Brien and Watson. The play bounces around in time and location, but is always easy to follow, and the occasional use of overlapping dialogue helps push the plot forward. Nor is O’Brien unwilling to try to paint himself as believably as possible, warts and all, depicting his own fears of his limitations, his naivety and an innate shyness.
Director Jo Bonney and her two accomplished actors, Michael Cumpsty as Watson and Michael Crane as O’Brien manage to draw the audience in and sustain our interest for the one-act 90 minute production. The minimal set is designed by Richard Hoover, who provides a slightly elevated space for two movable chairs, and a backdrop of free-floating shapes resembling blank news clippings upon which Alex Basco Koch’s array of projections can be seen. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting brings out the various greys in the set and contributes to the hemmed in feeling of the blizzard. Darron L. West’s sound design conveys everything from the tormented howls of huskies in the freezing cold to the unforgiving winds of a blizzard, from the sound of a helicopter falling from the sky to the suspicions of an angrier and angrier crowd. Ilona Somogyi dresses the two characters in appropriately casual clothing, that in combination with the two actors, can convey comfort or stand in for warming arctic garb.
But it is the shoulders of the two actors that bear the evening’s heavy lifting. While Crane for the most part plays O’Brien and Cumpsty plays Watson, they occasionally switch parts, often within the same sentence, as well as depict the various other personages essential to the story. They each handle each impersonations with crafty aplomb, creating in a second a radio interviewer then jumping Crane, who impressed this reviewer earlier this season in a complex role in the shocking but rewarding “Gloria” at New York’s Vineyard Theatre, captures the hesitations of a young writer struggling with questions about his own ability and particularly his right to write without having the worldly experiences of his friend. Crane depicts his character’s underlying exasperation at not exactly what he wants or needs, as well as his deference to authority figures who he seems to slightly fear.
Cumpsty presents a Watson who presents an affable bravura that covers up his own concerns about his ambition and desire for derring-do that has contributed to his success, while taking advantage of people’s most private or tragic moments. He projects a warmth and decency as his character discusses his family, claiming they are the only folks he remains close to, while ultimately admitting something similar to his younger admirer.
The two actors’ most moving scene, which is indeed a genuine highlight of the entire evening, comes close to the end, as Watson flashes back to a conversation with the surviving brother of the deceased Sergeant. With Cumpsty as Watson and Crane as the brother, the scene reveals the helplessness of the veteran photographer and provides some unanticipated twists that give credence to that old saw about “the eye of the beholder.” It is an amazing scene of sorrow, guilt and even a promise of redemption, a perfect coda to a story based on actual events told in an intimately personal manner unlike most any other production I’ve encountered.
“The Body of an American” plays through January 31. For information and tickets, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit the theater’s website at www.hartfordstage.org.