Review: “The Body of an American” at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Closed Sunday March 20, 2016)

February 23, 2016 | Off-Broadway | Tags: ,
By Dan O’Brien
Directed by Jo Bonney
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American,” currently running at Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is oddly reminiscent of Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.” Discussions between the play’s characters – the main characters Dan (Michael Crane) and Paul (Michael Cumpsty) – and secondary characters (also played by Mr. Crane and Mr. Cumpsty) are tied together by the story of Paul’s past self as the photo journalist who photographed a Somali mob dragging Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu on October 4, 1993.

Just like the protagonist in “Zen and the Art,” Paul is haunted by ghosts that seem to “ride” with him, particularly the ghost of Cleveland. And like the protagonist in Pirsig’s novel whose philosophical investigations “drove him insane,” Paul shares with Dan,” “I’ve sought psychiatric treatment/in subsequent years. And my psychiatrist/says it’s my superego. I believe/it was William David Cleveland speaking/to me.” Further, Paul shares, “Remember what Cleveland said to me: If you do this I will own you. I just have this feeling he’s thinking, You watched my desecration, now here comes yours.”

Under Jo Bonney’s careful direction, the actors deliver authentic and honest performances that engage the audience and connect with the audience on deep levels raising rich questions about “where war lives.” In a conversation with Dan, Paul affirms, “It lives in each of us, Camus said. In the loneliness and humiliation we all feel. If we can solve that conflict within ourselves then we’ll be able to rid the world of war. Maybe. So tell me, Dan: where does war live in you?” “The body of an American” asks that profound question of each and every audience member. Dan shares that his family is where war lives in him and in their lack of acceptance.

Paul Watson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph set off a life-long quest for peace, for stillness, for self-acceptance and it is on that level his character and the play engages the audience in a profoundly important conversation. Both actors in the play “portray” Paul and this interesting convention draws the audience into their experience and their journey toward forgiveness and reconciliation. What desecrations have we all watched? What desecrations do we fear we face in the present or in the future?

Richard Hoover’s set design, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, and Alex Basco Koch’s projection design all contribute successfully to the reflective mood of the play and draw the viewer into the matrix of cerebral and psychological constructs that make “The Body of an American” a play worth seeing.