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The Body of an American

True story of the friendship that develops between Pulitzer Prize-winning photo journalist Paul Watson and poet/playwright Dan O’Brien.

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]Although Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American is based on a true story about real people including the author himself, the Primary Stages production directed by Jo Bonney plays like a radio drama put on the stage. In fact, the opening dialogue in this two-man play is from a transcript of an NPR interview by Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2007 of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Watson on the occasion of the publication of his memoir Where War Lives. While the play has been successful at Portland Center Stage and the Gate Theatre in London, the New York production is curiously remote and uninvolving.

The inspiration for the play began when poet and playwright Dan heard the Fresh Air interview. Paul was already famous as the photographer who took the now iconic 1993 picture of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland’s body being desecrated in Mogadishu. As he took the photo, Paul heard a voice say, “If you do this, I will own you forever,” which led to his continuing post-traumatic stress syndrome. The public outcry caused President Clinton to pull the American forces out of Somalia which led to other political repercussions. Dan, suffering his own traumas, identified with Paul and emailed him. Surprisingly the reclusive Paul answered him and this led to a long correspondence and finally a face-to-face meeting in the Arctic.

While the first half of the play alternates between Dan and Paul’s stories and their initial email correspondence as Watson travels all over the world on assignment, the second half of the play recounts their meeting in Ulukhaktok, Alaska, where Paul had gone to check out global warming at the Arctic Circle. They talk, trade stories, watch television, go on a sledding excursion. Unfortunately, their meeting provides little catharsis for either man – or the audience. Both men remain just as elusive after they meet in person during their week’s journey.

Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty in Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty in Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Based 95% on correspondence and conversations with Paul Watson, The Body of an American is a two-man play in which Michael Crane usually portrays the author and Michael Cumpsty usually portrays the photographer. “Usually” is the operative word as between them also play a great many other characters (translators, guides, interviewers, etc.) as well as alternating lines during long passages by either man. Although Crane sporting a full beard looks remarkably like the author, his character remains curiously flat as we learn little about him other than that he is not on speaking terms with his parents. Unlike a self-portrait painting, it can’t be too easy to put yourself in a play as you may be a little too close to your material. Cumpsty’s Paul is a more fully developed character and as a result he gives the better performance, revealing tantalizing pieces of his career, problems, hopes and dreams, in no particular order. It is left for the audience to put his story together but he becomes a heroic, bigger-than-life personage by the end.

All of the events take place on Richard Hoover’s set on the tiny stage of the Cherry Lane Theatre which consists of two chairs and a wall of slats on which are projected Alex Basco Koch’s black and white photographs. It is possible that this stage is simply too small to encompass all of the war zones that Watson describes in the course of the play. As the photographs are not very sharp, they fail to add much atmosphere to the story. Ilona Somogyi’s nondescript but realistic costumes for the two actors neither give us the feeling of time passing or the many geographic locations. There is definitely a fascinating story in the friendship between Dan O’Brien and Paul Watson but The Body of an American in this production does not seem to have located it yet.

The Body of an American (through March 20, 2016)

Primary Stages in association with Hartford Stage

Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Ave. So, in Manhattan

For tickets, call OvationTix at 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit

Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (991 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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