BWW Review: THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN at Hartford Stage Company
Trauma and haunting, as words, each contain the sound 'awe' and both hunker close to the original meaning of awesome: fearsome, uncanny, larger than human in scale.
Dan O'Brien's play THE BODY OF AMERICAN turns on a friendship built on a bond of differing traumas. It's a true story, and an on-going one. In 2007, O'Brien heard Teri Gross interview the war journalist Paul Watson on her NPR show FRESH AIR. Watson won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a soldier's corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. Before he took the photo, he believes he heard the dead soldier say to him "If you do this, I will own you forever."
It's that haunting that drew O'Brien, who is a published poet as well as playwright, to contact Watson, and years worth of emails back and forth eventually lead to a meeting in the Arctic, in an unforgiving blizzard that forced the two men into physical proximity for the first time.
Both men are still very much alive, and events surrounding the Hartford Stage production included a live interview with both of them, conducted by a psychiatrist who is an expert in PTSD, a few days before the play opened to the press. O'Brien and Watson are depicted by actors Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty.
O'Brien's play is non-linear, even jumpy. It begins with both actors playing Teri Gross and moves through an unbroken 90 minutes of rapid-fire, smart talk. We watch two edgy, damaged, highly verbal men trying to understand themselves through the other and forge a friendship without pretense.
Both actors play both parts, though Crane is more often O'Brien (whom he resembles, physically) and Cumpsty is usually Watson. The actors execute synchronized movement at times they are both playing the same character, but this never lasts so long as to become a distracting parlor trick. While each often watches they other, they avoid mutual eye contact until quite late in the piece. With changes in voice, accent, or posture, they each take on multiple characters necessary to the storytelling-more than 30 in all. The performances are virtuosic, actually, though never self-congratulatory; instead, the actors seem driven by unflinching commitment to telling this story with as much clarity and complexity as they can.
Jo Bonney, who some say has made a career directing plays that explore modern masculinity, seems just the right person to establish a brisk pace and style that keeps this brainy, text-heavy script urgent and alive. Sound, light, and projections all contribute to the staging without overwhelming the pre-eminence of the language. O'Brien's got a knack for one-liners that furnish food for thought, like this zinger: "Men start wars because it helps them be sure that women aren't laughing at them."
Achingly current, this piece works best for an audience that is hooked on news and world affairs, psychologically astute, willing to listen hard, and ready to consider the toll that war and trauma exact from individuals and our collective culture.
Though in its last week in Hartford, this production will transfer immediately to the Cherry Lane Theater in New York, in an arrangement with Primary Stages.
photo by T. Charles Erickson