The Body of an American

by David A. Rosenberg

It starts with a bang, and ends with a bang. Much of what’s in between is a whimper. Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American,” playing at Hartford Stage before moving to New York, examines the lives of two men, their creative processes, the ghosts that haunt them, their search for themselves and their symbiotic need for connections. Based on the true story of Paul Watson, the photographer who, in 1993, took the widely-disseminated Pulitzer Prize picture of Sgt. William David Cleveland, the soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the play wants also to be the story of a growing friendship between Watson and O’Brien, a character in his own play.

Instead of a more conventional format, O’Brien spends 90 minutes giving us both a travelogue and a peek into the process of writing, a subject more endearing to fellow writers than audiences. The travelogue is Watson’s avoiding his inner conflicts as he circles the world on assignments to India (where he interviews Mother Teresa), Kosovo, Pakistan, Iraq, Burma and the Arctic where, after countless exchanged e-mails, he and O’Brien meet in person, talk about the cold and go on a dog sled ride.

O’Brien, haunted by personal ghosts of his childhood, has been pursuing Watson because he wants to write about debilitating apparitions. Watson has been fighting his own demons since the time he took his famous photo. Then, he thought he heard the dead soldier say, “If you do this, I will haunt you forever.” Wherever he goes, Watson can hear that admonition until, exorcising his guilt, he phones Cleveland’s family, first his mother, then his brother, leading to the evening’s one true doozy of a dramatic scene.

But that highlight is a long time coming. Before, we have to endure narrative devices in which the characters tell us how they feel. Playwright O’Brien also has a tendency to self-conscious metaphors like, “boys running naked like a snake along a river’s blood-red spine” and “the sea is an undulating eternity of black sludge.”

Director Jo Bonney has her hands full, dealing not only with the prevailing stasis but also with the play’s form. In addition to playing O’Brien and Watson, the two actors play Somalians, NPR’s Terry Gross and several others. Throughout, they often split identities, so one may finish the other’s sentence. Bonney has the men circling one another for much of the evening, keeping the action fluid.

Mainly as Watson, Michael Cumpsty is adept at showing the empathy beneath a journalist’s objectivity, commingled with guilt about having to maintain that very objectivity in the face of misery and death. As O’Brien, Michael Crane is bristly, edgy and subjective.

Backing scenic designer Richard Hoover’s bare stage, Alex Basco Koch’s projection design places us in specific locales. So effective are they that they suggest “The Body of an American” might work better as a film. But first, get rid of the meta-theatrical framework of a writer’s travails and stick to the dramatic tale of a journalist’s maneuvering the divide between private humanity and public impartiality.

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