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A CurtainUp Review
The Body of an American

In less than the time it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man's last shred of dignity. The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace. . . just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur, and I heard the voice: "If you do this, I will own you forever."— Paul Watson
Cumpsty and Crane
Michael Cumpsty (top) and Michael Crane (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The soldier whose "I will own you" just before photo-journalist Paul Watson took his picture was William David Cleveland. Whether that voice was real or Watson's super ego, as a psychologist suggests, he ignored those ominous words and got his shot. The grisly image of Cleveland's body being dragged through the war torn streets of Mogadishu sent shock waves throughout the world and is at the heart of Dan O'Brien's drama, about the after effects on Watson's psyche.

This is Curtainup's third encounter with The Body of an American. That horrendous photo won Watson the 1994 Pulitzer for spot on news. It also left him haunted by that and the many other dreadful deaths he witnessed. But The Body of an American is not a documentary but also the story of the growing friendship between Watson and O'Brien —yes, the playwright who is a character in his own play.

That photo also roused disturbing ghosts in O'Brien's memory bank. Consequently, the unusual structure of his 2-hander excavates two sets of ghosts in a relationship that began when O'Brien contacted Watson after hearing him interviewed on NPR.

When our London critic Lizzie Loverage reviewed The Body of An American it played at the 70-seat Gate Theatre. She called it "a giant play in a tiny space." The play also resulted in a Hartford Stage-Primary Stages co-production. David Rosenberg admired the Hartfort premiere for its performances and staging but felt the story of a journalist's maneuvering the divide between private humanity and public impartiality was potent enough to do without the meta theatrical framework O'Brien gave it.

Now that the Hartford Stage production has landed with its team intact at Primary Stages' new home, the Cherry Lane Theater on Commerce Street, I find myself agreeing with both my two colleagues. I found the structure more intriguing than off-putting, though along about the mid-point the interchanges and monologue-like dialogue felt drawn out and excessively wordy. That despite the fact that O'Brien's text is full of vivid word pictures. And though some of this does tend to feel like a travelogue and the trajectory of the relationship like a wannabe buddy story, it is offset by the vibrancy of the vignettes through which the playwright and his subject are interlinked.

I also found that the event that's at the core of The Body of an American powerful enough to second Lizzie's comment about it being "a giant play in a tiny space." The Cherry Lane has a conventional proscenium stage and is bigger than the tiny London theater with its stage straddling set-up. But it's small enough for the audience to feel part of Dan and Paul's conversations and fully appreciate Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty's enormous energy — and marvel at the way they seamlessly switch from their main characters to playing Somalians, NPR's Terry Gross, a psychotherapist and others.

Even without the all too timely focus on what's entailed in being a photo-journalist in bloody war zones, seeing these two actors on stage throughout the pacey 90-minutes is worth a trip to the West Village for anyone who values good acting. Cumpsty, who has recently been busy with TV gigs like Boardwalk Empire remains a consummate stage actor. No problems for him to memorize large chunks of text and deliver them clearly and with feeling. He has the showier role as the journalist who must show us his physical as well as emotional problems, notably a birth defect that left one hand a stump. But Michael Crane is equally impressive.

Both actors convincingly portray two men who, during what starts out as a series of e-mailed interviews, find things in common and grow to like and somehow nurture each other — that's even though it's three years before they actually meet in the Canadian Northwest Territories where Paul has opted to work and get away from the war zone horrors that haunt him. The ease with which they often merge their identities, so that one finishes the other's sentence is remarkable to watch. Their connection is also underscored by the way director Bonney has them circling each other and often rearranging the two chairs that are the only props on Richard Hoover's set. The simplicity of that set is effectively enriched by Alex Basco Koch's projections and Lap Chi Lu's lighting.

As David Rosenberg noted in Hartford, The Body of An American might indeed be more dynamic as a movie. On the other hand, such a film would undoubtedly put more weight on grisly details and crowd scenes than the two bravura performances that offer what only a live theater experience can.

London review
Connecticut review

The Body of an American by Dan O'Brien
Directed by Jo Bonney
CAST: Michael Crane (Dan), Michael Cumpsty (Paul)
Scenic Design by Richard Hoover
Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design by Darron L. West
Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre 38 Commerce Street,
From 2/10/16; opening 2/23/16/ closing 3/20/16.
Tuesday - Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 2 and 8PM; Sun 3PM with an added 2PM performance on Wednesday, March 9, with no evening performance on that date.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/20/16 press preview
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