by Susan Hasho
Based on true events, The Body of an American by Dan O’Brien begins with an interview on podcast and an email, with visuals on a screen behind the actors. Paul (Michael Cumpsty) is talking about a battle that raged through the night in Somalia, and as a war photojournalist, he got word the Somalians had shot down a Black Hawk and that they were parading an American soldier from street to street through the city. He went in search of the captured soldier with a driver, and gunman in the front seat of the car. They drove through the streets and found Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland—dead. Paul felt surrounded by a voice in his head that said, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” And he took a photograph. The crowd began to mutilate the corpse, spit on it, roll it through the dust and Paul kept taking photographs. It went over the AP wire, Time magazine printed the photographs and it had terrific results, mostly negative. Dan (Michael Crane) a writer, caught the podcast and was drawn to Paul’s story, his voice really, something in his voice, and felt a connection. They began communicating by email revealing deep portions of their lives to one another. They continued to communicate through a series of emails which the actors dramatize. What makes this theatrical at this point is the dramatic force of the stories revealed and the several other characters that the two actors take on for each other—beautifully.
Paul is haunted by Sgt. Cleveland and Dan is a journalist at odds with his dysfunctional family and mentally ill brother—both men are writers and both men are haunted in different ways. Dan wins a grant to visit Paul; he’s going to write a play about Paul.
Paul: “Let’s get together somewhere in the Upper Artic in 24-hour darkness, this winter.” And they do. From the moment they meet until the end of the play, there’s a different tone. The scene “Hi, What’s Your Name When Are You Leaving?” opens with a delightful riff on their destination:” Yellowknife to Kugluktuk by twin turboprop. How do you say that name again? Kugluktuk…I don’t know their language. Whose? The Intuit. Which means simply people in Inuktitut.” There is a winsome kind of humor here that is further explored with the side characters: taxi driver (Canadian redneck), Intuit woman, (“Hi what’s your name when are you leaving”). And, of course, they are face to face. They spend several days, or endless artic nights suspended in a hotel room, the deep cold getting closer, talking in random fits and starts of confession mixed with casual favorite-movie conversation. A blizzard comes and goes, delaying their departure. It is clear that these two men have experienced cataclysmic events in their lives, tried to write about the inexpressible, and finally have each met the one person they can talk to about it all.
There is talk about war, where war lives. These two men are really speaking about all kinds of war—Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, in their own families and within themselves. It’s a very adult conversation this play is having—at first like a dramatized correspondence, and finally unfolding dramatically in the halting process of two men finding unexpected connection. In the last scene of the play, Paul talks about a phone call he made to Sgt. Cleveland’s family. The brother (played by Dan) answers the phone. Paul wants to atone for taking the pictures of his brother William’s body. It turns out, the only way the family found out about his death was from seeing the photograph on a Peter Jenning’s news report. “If it weren’t for your picture we might’ve never found out.” Even forgiveness doesn’t seem to resolve as much in this play as the simple act of talking.
The play ends with an email. On a long conversational journey, there are no clichés in The Body of an American; but then in the relationship between these two men, there isn’t war either. “Dear Dan, just between me and you, my confessor; the big news is I’m back in Kandahar…Maybe you’ll come visit me sometime…I promise I’ll keep you safe as I can. Though, of course nobody knows what can happen out here. Talk to you soon, your friend Paul.”
Michael Cumpsty as Paul and Michael Crane as Dan are both impressive—and versatile, moving easily into the axillary characters they are portraying while completely in tune with each other. They have created Paul and Dan with great heart and honesty, and both bring rich life and humor to an incredibly dense play. It was a joy to be there with them.
Opening Night Photos Below:
The Body of an American runs February 10–March 20, 2016 at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, www.cherrylanetheatre.org.) Performances are Tuesday – Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 2 and 8PM; Sun 3PM. There is an added 2PM performance on Wednesday, March 9, with no evening performance on that date. No performances on February 24, March 2, and March 17. Tickets are $70 and can be purchased online at PrimaryStages.org, by phone via OvationTix at 212.352.3101 or toll-free 866.811.4111.
*Photos: James Leynse