By Tulis McCall
OIY! Watching two excellent actors take on the rolls of several people in a story AND switch playing the two main characters can take it out of a gal. Which is not to say The Body of an American is not worth the trip. I most certainly is. Just be certain you arrive focused and wearing something a teeny bit uncomfortable to keep you alert.
Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty are in excellent form as they take on this dizzying script which dictates that with each new character heading in the script, a different actor speaks. Which means one person could be played by each man several times over in succession. Or not. Making this a sort of wild tennis match of a play. This sharing of the two main roles is a contrivance that took a long time getting used to, time I would rather have spent in the story rather than in the logistics of the staging.
Cumpsty plays Paul Watson “most of the time” and Crane plays Dan O’Brien “most of the time.” Watson is the photojournalist on whom the story is based and O’Brien is the author od this very play. Actually the play is about both of these men and the friendship that they built, brick by brick, over vast distances and 2 decades. It had its source, however, in Watson’s career, and in particular the photo that he took of a dead American soldier, Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland,, being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The Americans killed over 600 Somalis that day. They lost 18 troops. As a result of this series of photographs President Clinton withdrew troops from Somalia and refused to intervene in Rwanda. And Alqaeda, in Watson’s opinions, saw how little it took to make Americans run. His photograph make 9/11 possible. An extraordinary burden to carry.
Watson described this in graphic detail – the moment of being outs tide of himself, and the moments where his eye commanded the shot, and the people so happy to participate in mutilating the soldier – to Terry Gross in 2007. O’Brien, then at Princeton writing a play about ghosts, was deeply affected by Watson’s story. Specifically about the voice that Watson heard moments before he took the photographs. “If you do this I will own you.”
O’Brien sent an email that Watson, uncharacteristically, opened. The conversation began and has been going ever since. That is the core of this story. The banter has a casual tone but it never really is. Did you know you can buy stolen US Military flash dives in Kabul? Did you know your parents can ostracize you for looking like a lost uncle? They discuss fathers absent or dead. How dead bodies look on streets, in rivers, tumbling over waterfalls. Paul moves around the Globe – Jakarta, the Philippines, Burma – and Dan makes his way to L.A. by way of Wisconsin where the snow is burying the Obama road signs. They think about mortality and safety. Why should a person who is safe give a rat’s ass about someone being bludgeoned to death thousands of miles away? No one does. Sip your vodka and enjoy your deck in the evening. All is well you tell yourself. They talk to each another in a way that feels as though it is different from a conversation they would have with anyone else. They have caught each other like otters in a pool. They twine their paws together and float as one. They go deep into each other’s lives. Although only one has seen devastation brought by nature or humans, the other carries his own darkness. The thing is, however, that neither of these men wallow in their darkness. Instead, as if strengthened by their connection, they leap in and explore it in an oblique way. And not without humor.
Dan repeatedly asks to meet, and Paul changes to subject or his physical location until finally he is assigned to cover the Inuit people in the Arctic – and what could be a better place? No war, no death. Just cold and midnight sun and quiet. No distractions.
But it is not peaceful in the sense that these two are restless men who are searching for the truth and afraid to find it. One has it shoved into his lens and is in his own way a mercenary of war. His fell photographers are not immune to their surrounding (I was reminded of the recent interview on Radio Lab with Lynsey Addario who is also a photo journalist and has the scars to prove it). The other is a writer who, by the time the Arctic is a meeting ground, is writing a full-out play about the two men and is a believer in the ghosts that live inside and among us. This is a camaraderie built on chance. It is deep friendship for two men who have no other friends.
As the play moves toward its conclusion, there is gentleness, a trust and a knowing that comes over us all. We have surrendered to the unnecessary splintering of the two characters between the two actors – who do an astonishing job – and can see that in many ways they are one. One couple who created a friendship from thin air, inquisitive natures, and trust. It is a tough journey O’Brien tells us, but worth the risk.
The Body Of An American by Dan O’Brien, Directed by Jo Bonney
WITH Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty
Set by Richard Hoover, Lights by Lap Chi Chu, Costumes by Ilona Somogyi, Sound Design by Darron L. West, Production Design by Alex Basco Koch, Dialect Coash Deborah Hecht
“The Body of an American” is presented by Primary Stages, Executive Producer Casey Childs, Artistic Director Andrew Leynse and Rhoda R. Herrick in association with Hartford Stage, Darko Tresnjak Artistic Director and Michael Stotts Managing Director. Through March 20 at the Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street, West Village, 866-811-4111, primarystages.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.