Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane/Photo: James Leynse, courtesy Primary Stages

The titular corpse of The Body of an American is that of Sgt. William Cleveland, whose near-naked form was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia by a jeering and delighted mob in 1993. Sgt. Cleveland was one of 18 Americans—deployed to Somalia on a humanitarian mission that morphed into a military one—who were killed in what became known as the Black Hawk Down catastrophe.

Dan O’Brien’s play (through March 20 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in Greenwich Village) features Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty playing all roles. Crane, bearded and compact, plays O’Brien and several others, while Watson, a more Falstaffian figure with a face like a broken-in catcher’s mitt, also slips in and out of a number of personas but primarily plays the Canadian war photographer Paul Watson, whose photographs of Cleveland’s body earned him a Pulitzer. The play, which begins with a reenactment of a radio interview, takes us through Watson’s mission to Mogadishu, its aftermath, and the friendship between the two men that began when O’Brien, having heard the interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, began what became a searching correspondence with the photojournalist. The two finally meet in person on a strange dog-sledding adventure in the Canadian arctic.

Watson allowed in the NPR interview, in a moment that provides the crux of the play, that before taking the indelible photographs he heard Cleveland’s voice telling him, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” So it came to pass. Watson is today still bruised by the experience, although it might be well to remind him: not as bruised as the deceased.

The play is breathlessly directed by Jo Bonney and inventively lit by Lap Chi Chu, whose flickers and projections and color filters cinematically zap us from one desolate corner of the planet to another as the actors alternately portray an African translator, other war correspondents, a drug dealer, and the Inuit residents of the Arctic town, Yellowknife, where the two men bond. Early on it becomes obvious that this a character inquiry without a plot or even a psychological question that must be answered, but O’Brien skillfully maps his and Watson’s interior landscapes.

Watson, having been born with only a withered stump where his left hand should have been, has lived a life occluded by woe. Both men have been cut off from their fathers, Watson because his died of a kidney disease when he was not yet two, and O’Brien because his father never spoke to him except “to tell you how f—ing stupid you were.” Watson thinks of himself as living on time he hasn’t earned. He figures he should have been killed in one war zone or another a long time ago. “I imagined myself as nothing more than a passenger on this rotting vessel of my body,” he says. When he packs up for yet another dangerous gig, he takes extra prescription pills “in case I get kidnapped.” O’Brien, even as he is gobbling up every detail and describing with some unease his cosseted life as a writing teacher on idyllic American campuses, notes, “Everything has this kind of Hemingway patina to it. This kind of old school journalistic swagger. It’s like you’re trying to impress me.” Each man helps the other define himself.

Politically speaking the play is incoherent in a familiar way: Watson serially deplores the use of Western power in Somalia (of Sgt. Cleveland, he says, “For weeks I’d hated U.N. peacekeepers like this man, who killed from the sky with impunity”) and then-President Bill Clinton’s decision not to intervene in Rwanda weeks later. The only consistent political principle for these world-weary roaming truth-seekers is loathing for whatever the U.S. is either doing or not doing at any given moment. Even as the playwright does faithfully render the condition of being haunted by memory and history, moreover, he is somewhat too awed by Watson’s daring. The photographer argues, fatuously, that absent his photo the Iraq War would not have happened. His logic is as follows: Al Qaeda was active in Somalia and learned the value of propaganda from his photo, which led Bill Clinton to pull troops from the country, which in turn inspired 9/11 and the Iraq invasion. “After my photograph: 9/11, and this never-ending war on terror,” Watson says, mournfully. That George W. Bush is not the cause of Al Qaeda’s medieval bloodlust, and that fanatical Islam’s war against us will continue regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge it or fight back, are the sort of blazingly obvious insights that you are unlikely to see dramatized on the New York stage. Watson would stand a better chance of reducing the size of his demons if he reduced his estimation of his own historical importance.

O’Brien also doesn’t quite grasp that he is elevating Watson (an observer) and himself (an observer of an observer) to levels of greater importance than the noble troops killed that day in Mogadishu. No service member’s name but Cleveland’s is even uttered in the course of the play. Cpl. James Smith? Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz? Spc. James Cavaco? They’re of no interest to O’Brien. They weren’t the subjects of famous photographs. They’re not celebrities.

The Body of an American is, then, a play more contemporary than it knows. Devouring and pondering the ramifications of images is the real action. Perhaps a logical next step for O’Brien would be to write about himself watching his play being staged. At one pivotal moment in the play Watson actually contacts both the mother and the brother of Sgt. Cleveland and discovers that the mother would rather not be reminded of her worst day and the brother has proceeded onward with life. Watson is advised not to make contact with the family again and a kind of peace or closure settles in him. Why should he let his life be defined by taking a picture of a dead man whose own brother declines to be undone by the loss? Being a war correspondent is a choice. Perhaps being haunted is also.

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