by Samuel L. Leiter
The body of an American referred to by the title of Dan O’Brien’s darkly compelling play, being given a sharply acted and staged production by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane, is that of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland. He was the American Army Ranger whose corpse was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, an image captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken by Canadian war photojournalist Paul Watson. The photo, it turned out, had an incalculable influence on subsequent global events, not least the rise of Al Qaeda.
The Body of an American has won several prestigious awards, premiered at the Portland Center Stage, and has been produced elsewhere, including in London. It examines the relationship between playwright O’Brien (Michael Crane) and Watson (Michael Cumpsty), as O’Brien—having heard Watson interviewed by Terri Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”—sets out to write a play about him. (Some of the same material also was used in Jonathan Berger’s opera, The War Reporter, for which O’Brien wrote the libretto.)
This is a two-man, multi-character, uninterrupted, 90-minute work with the ambience of a docudrama, although what’s documented is not so much Watson’s experiences—many of which are recounted—as the relationship between the two men and the sharing of their respective psychological anxieties. Each, in his way, is haunted by ghosts of one sort or another. O’Brien sees in Watson a way to confront his own demons. After an extended e-mail correspondence, the men finally get to spend a chunk of time together among the Inuits in the frozen, barren, boring, arctic landscape of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where Watson is on assignment for the Toronto Star.
Watson, born with only a stump for his left arm—a handicap he learned to use to his advantage, even in dangerous circumstances—epitomizes the heroic, driven, yet psychically damaged people who bring us the news from the violent cesspools of the world. Like so many others, he worked under horrendous, traumatic circumstances in hellish warzones such as Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. In order to get as close to the action as possible, he experienced things that would cause most of us to have ceaseless nightmares. The play reveals the permanent impact this had on his psyche (he suffers from PTSD), in particular, the guilt he felt after he photographed the soldier and thought he heard a voice saying, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Of the play’s several intense scenes, none is more riveting than the one in which, as if seeking redemption, he speaks to Cleveland’s brother on the phone.
Much of what transpired is presented not in conventional dialogue, but through an impressionistic patchwork of passages from e-mails, recorded comments, and remembered conversations (including with Watson’s therapist), the majority of it spoken directly to the audience even when the characters are talking to one another. Although Crane and Cumpsty, respectively, play O’Brien and Watson, they occasionally speak the other’s lines, as well as those of the many secondary characters that figure intermittently in the story (including Mother Teresa). O’Brien, a poet as well as a dramatist, weaves his own insights into the tense talk, and, inspired by Watson’s book, Where War Lives, questions why men go to war.
Jo Bonney’s beautifully orchestrated direction, using only two chairs, moves the actors around in continually interesting ways. Her staging is supplemented by Richard Hoover’s simple set showing scattered fragments of slatted wall, Darron L West’s superbly inventive soundscape, Alex Basco Koch’s magnificent projections, and Lap Chi Chu’s memorably atmospheric lighting. The Body of an American is as much a triumph of theatrical skill as it is of fine acting and creative dramaturgy. That it also questions the instincts that lead to war makes it even more important that the play be seen.
The Body of an American
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through March 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).