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“The Body of an American” revisits Somalia
The Body of an American
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street
Opened Feb. 23, 2016
Tickets: From $71, www.ovationtix.com
Closes March 20, 2016
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 3, 2016
(from left) Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in the Primary Stages production of "The Body of an American" by Dan O'Brien, directed by Jo Bonney at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo by James Leynse
One would think America’s misadventures in Somalia, a low point in our international prestige, would be a something we would like to forget. Yet these events spawned the 2001 film, “Black Hawk Down,” and in 2014, a play by Dan O’Brien, “The Body of an American,” which won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play and the Inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Award for a drama inspired by American History.
(from left) Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in the Primary Stages production of "The Body of an American" by Dan O'Brien, directed by Jo Bonney at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo by James Leynse.
The Body of an American is based on the true story of the friendship between war photographer Paul Watson and playwright Dan O’Brien. Watson is the man who shot the photo of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland’s corpse after he’d been tied, beaten and dragged through the streets by an angry Somalian mob. O’Brien was a Princeton fellow at the time. He was working on a play about historical ghosts, but he was haunted by that picture.
In fact, the play O’Brien wrote seems haunted too. It unwinds as a series of scenes identified by titles flashed on a broken screen. These scenes are fragments in the lives of the playwright and the photographer.
In Primary Stages’ New York premiere, the many scenes are enacted by by Michael Cumpsty, who is mostly Watson, and Michale Crane, who is principally O’Brien but also many other people in their lives. These people include a psychiatrist, a translator, Cleveland’s brother, Mother Teresa and radio interviewer Terry Gross, who opens the play. But that photo never goes away.
(from left) Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty in the Primary Stages production of "The Body of an American" by Dan O'Brien, directed by Jo Bonney at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo by James Leynse.
Director Jo Bonney certainly keeps the play moving seamlessly from scene to scene. The set is simple. The actors never stray into self-indulgence, even when O’Brien’s language is overly self-conscious.
Although each of these men has a story (Watson has a physical deformity and a sometimes unlikely relationship with women; O’Brien has a tortured relationship with his family), it’s never made clear why they are drawn to each other or what they learn from the relationship, which one imagines is the heart of this drama.
A few of the scenes in "The Body of an American" are quite affecting. Many leave one quite cold. And more than a few seem like nothing but propaganda.
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