The Body of an American

By Brooks Appelbaum

Dan O’Brien’s play, The Body of an American, is being given a handsomely restrained production at Hartford Stage. Director Jo Bonney’s aesthetic here is to let the language do most of the dramatic work. The spare set, designed by Richard Hoover, consists of two chairs and a playing space with a blond wood floor. Flickering across the back wall on panels of varied width and height, Alex Basco Koch’s majestic projections move us from one geographical place and one powerful mood to another. Unfortunately, the visual elements of this two-character piece give us the most compelling drama of the evening. O’Brien’s script needs stronger conflict, higher stakes, and a more sharply focused narrative.

The Body of an American explores the relationship O’Brien forged, almost entirely through emails, with Canadian photojournalist and writer, Paul Watson, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize with his photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s bloodied and beaten corpse after it had been dragged through the streets of Somalia’s Mogadishu. According to Watson’s 2008 memoir, Where War Lives, just before he clicked the shutter he heard Cleveland say to him, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” These words haunted Watson ceaselessly. In choosing to take the photo, he felt he had desecrated the body of an American.

In O’Brien’s 90-minute piece, the character of O’Brien (Michal Crane) woos Watson (the magnificent Michael Cumpsty) to help him write the play that we are watching. The playwright wants to understand the emotional reverberations of this riveting event and to understand, too, Watson’s drive to uncover, record, and publicize the world’s horrors with seemingly no regard for his own safety. As he comes to know Watson better, O’Brien must both face up to his own comfortable circumstances in comparison with Watson’s fearlessness, and face the ghosts from his own past that Watson’s stories call forth.

The central problems with O’Brien’s play concern the genre of memoir. Watson has already written his own memoir exploring many of the themes that O’Brien too-briefly touches on. Sections of the memoir are quoted in the play, but both men dismiss its importance, for different reasons. In fact, The Globe and Mail of Toronto named Where War Lives one of the "year’s 100 most notable books" and its first printing consisted of 60,000 copies, very well received.

O’Brien certainly has a right to mine his responses to Watson and to Watson’s stories for himself. However, based on The Body of an American, the most powerful way to do this would be to write a memoir of his own. In a memoir, he would have space to probe his questions, emotions, and guilt, and also to wrestle with, and pay tribute to, the fascinating Paul Watson. O’Brien can write monologues powerfully and poetically: that much is clear. However, here he does not write action, the raison d’ĂȘtre of a play. Without an immediate and dramatic conflict that shapes and drives their relationship, the two men are stranded in conversational exposition and direct address, punctuated by only a few enacted set piece events.

Lap Chi Chu provides drama with a beautiful lighting design, and Darron L. West, in conjunction with Jo Bonney’s spare vision, makes an interesting choice with the sound. Where one would expect a sonic battering that replicates Watson’s wartime horrors, the sounds -- a child crying, guns firing, people screaming -- are muted, focusing us on the words and the characters.

Oddly, O’Brien has written his own character thinly, and during most of the evening, Dan is not particularly likable. Under the expert guidance of Jo Bonney, Michael Crane plays what he has been given, and he touchingly reveals Dan’s fragile side towards the end of the evening.

As Paul Watson, Michael Cumpsty gives a tremendously complex, layered, and utterly believable performance. Here, O’Brien has written a character to be remembered, and The Body of an American is commendable, at the least, for its evocation of this troubled, elusive, and heroic man.

The Body of an American runs through January 31. For more information visit

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