The Body of an American

Theater, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Body of an American
Photograph: James Leynse The Body of an American

The Body of an American: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald

Could one photograph possibly be worth 800,000 lives? That’s the hypothetical equation that has haunted Canadian war photographer Paul Watson ever since October 3, 1993, when he captured the image of a downed Black Hawk crewman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. This journalistic coup, achieved at unimaginable personal risk, won Watson a Pulitzer, along with ensuing decades of guilt—because President Clinton almost immediately ordered the American troops to withdraw from Africa, effectively sitting out the imminent Rwandan massacre (Watson covered that horror, too), and because Al-Qaeda apparently seized on the debacle as evidence of U.S. vulnerability.

In his impressionistic, documentary-style two-hander, playwright Dan O’Brien calls for a bit of role-juggling, but mostly Michael Cumpsty plays Watson, a recovering adrenalin junkie awash in a miasma of PTSD and self-recrimination, while Michael Crane stands in for the author. After hearing Watson interviewed on NPR upon the publication of his ’07 memoir Where War Lives (the title derives from a Camus quote calling for introspection with regard to aggression), O’Brien found himself identifying somewhat obsessively with the deeply conflicted Watson. He sent a fan e-mail and, upon receiving a response, parlayed their subsequent correspondence and assorted get-togethers—including an on-assignment meet-up in arctic Kugluktuk—into this curious, not always successful, but consistently intriguing character study.

Director Jo Bonney keeps the pace brisk, the trajectory clear—and yet Watson remains fascinatingly elusive. Alluding obliquely to an underlying death wish (“I’ve already lived longer than I should have”), he admits to disillusionment with his chosen profession, and yet keeps gravitating toward war zones, ever on the lookout for atrocities.

For O’Brien to draw parallels between Watson’s heroics and his own cushy life as an academically connected playwright comes across as not only presumptuous but parasitical. The author inserts himself into the narrative so insistently, the meta elements (“I’m worried about the play, how to end it”) read more creepy than trendy. And yet there’s a decided payoff—Crane mesmerizes in this brief segment—when O’Brien finally works his way toward a personal epiphany which mirrors in some small measure Watson’s own painful, expiatory journey.—Sandy MacDonald

Cherry Lane Theatre (Off Broadway). By Dan O’Brien. Directed by Jo Bonney. With Michael Crane, Michael Cumpsty. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.

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Event website: http://www.primarystages.org