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The Body of an American

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty
Photo by James Leynse

Few would dare dispute that the effects of war can linger long, even for those who've never taken a weapon onto a battlefield. You can watch news reports at home on television or step into a voting booth and feel an impact, and a compulsion to make a choice that will bring your closer to or nudge you further away from violence. But whether this type of extra-post-traumatic stress disorder, among the passive—or, if you will, artistic—participants of armed conflicts makes gripping theatre is another question altogether. And, in his play The Body of an American, which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a Primary Stages production, it's not one that Dan O'Brien convincingly answers.

In fact, O'Brien factors about as prominently as is possible in this two-man drama (though he's played by actor Michael Crane). Dan hears famed war photographer Paul Watson (Michael Cumpsty) on a podcast and e-mails him, setting off the first sparks in an uneasy professional relationship. Dan is writing a play about historical ghosts (or at least trying to), and Paul is haunted by a powerful one: that of an American man being dragged through the streets in Mogadishu during the first Iraq War, whose corpse Paul photographed, leading to acclaim (including the Pulitzer Prize) and influence on popular opinion.

For Dan, as for countless others, seeing the photo was spiritually transformative; but for Paul, capturing that death that way has been assuming an Atlas-like burden of responsibility and guilt that he has not been able to shed. Dan, then, seeks to understand Paul's agony, whereas Paul wants only to exorcise the specter that's restraining him. In both cases, those goals are more easily spoken than achieved, as the two discover the cold way when they journey to the Arctic together and bond during a devastating blizzard.

That snowstorm, along with the sub-freezing temperatures they must endure on the trek, symbolizes their attempts to escape from their own bleak and frozen lives, but it also represents the biggest obstacles with The Body of an American that O'Brien is not able to overcome: a paucity of action and emotion that might lead you through this ostensibly necessary story.

The biggest issue is that Paul and his story are undersized. Part of this is the structure, in which everything unfolds as if a faded recollection during an interview (which, if the play itself to be believed, is what spawned it). But Paul's recollections, tinted and tainted by distance and his own mental state, appear faint and distant, not immediate; you don't experience his heartbreak the way he did, and O'Brien does not otherwise draw it out of him. As a result, an inception point that's supposed to be titanic is microscopic, leaving the rest of the play to feel like a severe case of much ado about nothing.

O'Brien does, however, suggest Paul's struggle, which gives you something of a vantage paint. That is not the case with Dan. He is, like many of his purported subjects, insubstantial, and if the plot (such as it is) didn't involve Dan eliciting Paul's story from him, there would be no reason for him to be here. His investigatory nature is poorly realized, he does not have much of a vital offstage life (he mentions devotion to his wife and running, for example, but they're throwaway material, not three-dimensional detail), and though Crane (who was excellent in Gloria at the Vineyard Theatre last year) tries, he comes across as more irritating than likable.

Cumpsty, a bravura, old-school-style actor, does better at building out Paul, from intensifying his unique physicality (much of his performance seems to emanate from the character's missing hand, which Cumpsty represents with a closed fist that somehow manages to seldom look like one) to revealing the cracks in his well-buried foundation. There's still a second-hand quality about Paul that's frustrating in a play that wants to dissect him, but he does occasionally register as an unusual type of victim who survives on one level, but on another is no less dead than the piles of bodies around him.

Efficient, if chilly, direction by Jo Bonney and the design (the newspaper-scrap set by Richard Hoover, Lap Chi Chu's lights, and most notably Alex Basco Koch's digital-stream-of-consciousness projections) keeps the evening moving well enough, though it feels not a second shorter than its 90-minute, intermissionless running time. But even here, they're fighting against O'Brien, whose use of two actors to portray a variety of personalities from across the world is one of the more haphazard and confusing I've seen. Each actor, for nebulous reasons, occasionally plays the other's role, which is especially bewildering at the beginning of the play, before you (and they) have found the proper footing.

In its general voice and tone, The Body of an American reminded me strongly of Doug Hughes's astonishingly similar I Am My Own Wife (from 2003), in which a playwright-journalist came to know and theatricalize a figure with an odd, but memorable, connection to history. Hughes, however, took sweeping chances, instituted a towering central figure in Charlotte von Malsdorf, and populated the surrounding world with vibrant, interesting people that deepened both the sense of reality and our perception of it.

There, it was as if we were inside that universe, watching history unfold. Here, we're just listening to other people talk about it. Important? O'Brien doesn't make that case.

The Body of an American
Through March 20
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street, off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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