“The Body of an American”
“The Body of an American,” the two-character play by Dan O’Brien that is currently being presented at Hartford Stage, is a compelling and quietly haunting new work that is bound to get under your skin. Based on true events, “The Body of an American” explores the real-life relationship between the playwright Dan O’Brien and the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Paul Watson and how they forge a kind of friendship based on disturbing events in their lives. Director Jo Bonney does a superb job of keeping the tension high throughout the show and this play is also in the good hands of two terrific actors, Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty, who perform without letup. The chilling sentence, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” (which Paul Watson thought he heard a dead soldier say, just as he took a picture of the soldier), hangs over the entire play and imbues this show with an unsettling feeling from beginning to end. “The Body of an American” is not a perfect play, but it is still quite a substantial work that is likely to linger with you for days after seeing the show.
“The Body of an American” is also remarkable in how much playwright Dan O’Brien was able to create and dramatize from his friendship with photographer Paul Watson. This play runs a quick 90 minutes and follows the connection between these two men and the ghosts (both literal and figurative) that continue to haunt them and also manage to bring them together. I would be loath to reveal much more of the plot of the show, but Dan O’Brien’s dramaturgy and skill as a writer keep the play quite riveting.
Playing these two men onstage are the enormously gifted pair of actors, Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty. These performers work in tandem and play off each other perfectly. Indeed, “The Body of an American” would not be nearly as good or work as well without these two topnotch actors. In the role of the playwright, Dan, Michael Crane is pretty electric as he forges a growing friendship (at first, strictly by e-mail, then, eventually in person) with the photographer, Paul, and there is his continued questioning throughout the show of how he is going to manage to transform real-life events into a play. As Paul, the photographer, Michael Cumpsty is equally good. Having seen this actor give terrific performances starring in the Broadway revivals of the musicals “42nd Street” and “1776,” it is with great pleasure that I can say that his work in this play is just tremendous and, as mentioned, he and Michael Crane make a great team. It should be noted here that both men also play various other characters during the show, as needed.
Richard Hoover’s scenic design is spare, yet entirely appropriate, and he works wonders with both lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and, especially, projection designer Alex Basco Koch. Director Jo Bonney does a terrific job of maintaining a level of uneasiness and danger throughout the show, with that sentence, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” continuously haunting the action. The photographer, Paul, believed to have heard a dead American soldier say this just as he was taking a picture of the man, and “The Body of an American” is, in some ways, an attempt at an exorcism of that disturbing event and a possible way to move on.
Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” is a striking play being given a superlative production and it is stated in the program that, immediately after the Hartford Stage run, the show is to be produced Off-Broadway. One can only hope that the creators of this show will continue to maintain and refine the virtues already inherent in this work and it will be interesting to see how this play goes over in New York. Still, for now, we are blessed that Hartford Stage is currently presenting “The Body of an American” on its stage and this play can certainly be recommended to adventurous theatergoers. Just don’t be surprised if “The Body of an American” stays with you long after the show has ended.
“The Body of an American” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through January 31st. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.