Review: 'Body of an American" at the Cherry Lane Theatre

Sara Zweig 

OnStage New York Critic


In 1993, journalist and war photographer Paul Watson was covering the American military intervention in Somalia.  His photo of a zealous Somalian mob dragging the mutilated body of an American soldier, later identified as Sgt. William David Cleveland, changed the course of U.S. involvement in the war.  Public outcry over the photo and its depiction of the needlessly violent, brutally humiliating realities of war contributed to President Clinton’s withdrawal address to the nation, which mentioned Watson’s photo, just four days later.

 Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane play the photographer Paul Watson and the playwright Dan O'Brien in “The Body of an American.” Credit T. Charles Erickson

Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane play the photographer Paul Watson and the playwright Dan O'Brien in “The Body of an American.” Credit T. Charles Erickson

Watson won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo, but the list of benefits reaped from his newfound career boost ended there.  Watson struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in subsequent years. In interviews, he states that he heard the voice of Sgt. Cleveland saying “I own you now” before taking the picture, and he has felt haunted ever since. Additionally, Watson has also seen negative geo-political repercussions from the photo’s publication. He connects the American retreat from Somalia, and Clinton’s hesitance to intervene in the Rwandan genocide just months later, with the growth of Al-Qaeda and thus, with the September 11th attacks.

It’s obvious why playwright Dan O’Brien would be interested in Watson as the subject of his play, Body of an American. O’Brien reached out to Watson after hearing an interview on NPR promoting his 2013 memoir, his interest peaked by the ghostly haunting of war atrocities in the journalist’s life. But Watson is not the only subject developed through the play. O’Brien makes himself a character, detailing his pursuit of Watson and his own experiences as a writer. O’Brien both identifies strongly with Watson’s isolating depression and difficult childhood. The two men also experience similar feelings of guilt over their roles as artists: they can document the world’s injustices, but cannot interfere with them. For O’Brien, a college professor distanced from the horrors of war by pseudo-awareness like hashtag activism, Watson is an almost mythic figure—an adventurer who risks life and death to bring the world to the site of war.  Watson, however, sees his career with far less romanticism. He startles himself with the desensitized way he attempts to artistically frame a photo of a small child crying amidst a field of corpses. He resigns himself to the possibility of dying in the field, even as a fellow lauded photojournalist commits suicide three weeks after winning a Pulitzer.  The only thing keeping Watson grounded, it seems, is his relationship with his wife, which he refuses to discuss.

The play’s style is an excellent match for its contents. It effortlessly melds detailed journalistic accounts with roving personal introspection. O’Brien builds a documentary narrative around these many questions of guilt, integrity, and civic responsibility. About 95% of the script is adapted from his real-life correspondence with Watson. The scenic design from Richard Hoover projects photographs and video, emphasizing the tangible realness of the play. Actors Michael Crane and Michael Cumpsty play O’Brien and Watson, respectively, and at least a dozen other small roles. One of the strikingly successful parts of their performances and Jo Bonney’s direction is how the scenes are paced suitably to each character’s motivations and relationships. Crane and Cumpsty weave in and out of characters, dialects, and physicality with a steady and affirming conscious that bring a sense of wonder, but also fragile awareness, to their fraught situations.

Journalism is essentially storytelling, much like playwriting. And storytelling is itself a look backwards, an attempt to pieces events and experiences in a meaningful way. At times, the effect is therapeutic, exerting control over chaos. But what if your story only leads to regrets? To what extent are we responsible for our own actions? For our families? For the subjects of our creative work? While, O’Brien doesn’t set any clear answers down, his journey, mirrored in Watson’s, is a profound one, both intellectually and emotionally rewarding. 

Body of an American is playing at the Cherry Lane Theater through March 20. Tickets here.

For more of Sara Zweig’s work, visit Letters From The Mezzanine blog and podcast.