Monday, January 18, 2016

Theater Review: The Body of an American -- Hartford Stage

Michael Cumpsty and Michael CraneT. Charles Erickson
Ghosts of War Haunt Participants in More Ways Than One
By Lauren Yarger
Playwright Dan O’Brien is haunted by the work of photojournalist Paul Watson, who in turn is haunted by a photo he takes of a dead soldier. Can the two men help each other make sense of their ghosts?

That’s the premise of The Body of an American, O’Brien’s autobiographical play, getting a run at Hartford Stage, directed by Jo Bonney. The two-hander, which won the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize, the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, is a coproduction with Primary Stages and play a limited engagement Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in February and March.

Michael Cumpsty (End of the Rainbow) and Michael Crane (Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3; Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) star. Cumpsty is photographer Paul Watson, who covers war-torn regions in Africa for the Toronto Star. In 1996, he won the Pulitzer for a photo taken of Sgt. William David Cleveland, who was brutally murdered in Mogadishu (Somalia).

It’s that photo, and his belief that he could hear the dead soldier warning him “If you do this, I will own you forever” that change the course of his life. Was that photo responsible for inspiring later terrorist propaganda that might even have facilitated 9/11? He certainly caused the soldier’s family horrible grief by having to see Cleveland’s horribly desecrated body.

Somewhat reclusive, Watson finally chooses to respond to correspondence from O’Brien (Crane), a struggling playwright at Princeton, trying to write a play about ghosts. He has his own traumas in life, but feels guilty. After all, family issues and a girlfriend don’t seem to compare with seeing the horrors of war. Or do they? We all wrestle with ghosts in some way or another and that’s the crux of O’Brien’s play. The two men form a bond and friendship and somehow help each other through.

Both actors play the main roles as well as many other parts to tell the stories of how they ended up where they are. There are lots of accents and lighting cues (designed by Lap Chi Chu) to help make the transitions, kept in sharp focus by Bonney. And Alex Koch offers projections of images onto a continent-looking design on the backdrop of Richard Hoover’s stark set (basically two men using two chairs for props) to bring reality on stage (though the images are somewhat blurred and disappointingly don’t highlight Watson’s photography to the extent we’d like.)

The language is lyrical – not a surprise, given O’Brien’s poetic bent: his most recent collection of poetry, New Life, was published by CB Editions in London and his debut poetry collection, entitled War Reporter, received the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection and was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He also wrote the libretti for Jonathan Berger's Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter, two chamber operas.

While the characters could stand a little more development and backstory to help us understand how they react to circumstances, they nevertheless are intriguing in this intense one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

“He’ll never go away until he gets what he wants form me,” says Watson, who recently left his beat in the Arctic – about as far away as you can get from covering wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, which he continued to do for years for the Star and LA Times.

A moderated panel discussion, The Journey Home: A Veteran’s Perspective, will be held following the 7:30 pm performance of The Body of an American on Thursday, Jan. 21 at Hartford Stage. Participating panel organizations include Til Duty is Done, Giant Steps Art Therapy Program, Veterans Homefront Theatre, and Community Renewal Team. A variety of issues of concern to veterans – including PTSD, job reentry, homelessness, and reconnecting with loved ones – will be discussed. The panel discussion is free with admission to the play.
The Body of an American plays through Jan, 31 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Wednesday, Jan. 20 at 2 pm.  Tickets $25-$90.  (860) 527-5151;
For tickets to the NY production at the Cherry Lane, visit

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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