Stage Review: ‘The Body of an American’

BodyofAmericanWhen the foreign correspondent Paul Watson snapped a grisly photo in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, he’d receive both a prize and a curse. He got a Pulitzer Prize for capturing the awful moment of the body of a soldier being dragged and desecrated down a side street, but also heard a imagined voice from the dead soldier that haunted him from the soldier.

Watson wrote about his ordeal in a book “Where War Lives” 14 years later, which is when playwright Dan O’Brien heard him being interviewed on “Fresh Air.”

O’Brien was right to know that Watson’s story was rife with dramatic potential, especially since it influenced a prevailing propaganda for terrorists groups years later. But Watson was understandably reluctant to share it further.

O’Brien thought that part made for good drama, too.

So the resulting “The Body of an American,” as directed by Jose Carrasquillo at Theater J, is arresting, vivid, relevant presentation of the world’s woes — and the dangers fraught by those on the front lines in the name of journalism.

But it also is largely about O’Brien’s efforts of writing this very play, from him peppering the journalist with emails, to their finally meeting to an odd trip they both take to the Arctic. There’s something immediate and real about the interactions, even as they move closer to each of their individual motivations. But when that happens they also move away from the central story — that ugly image and all it portends for the modern world.

It might not work at all if it’s not for Carrasquilo’s energetic direction and especially the work of the two actors on stage.

Each seems to completely embody their imperfect characters. Eric Hissom is the slightly annoyed, hard to know journalist who otherwise is up to continuing the conversation. Thomas Keegan is appropriately earnest and imploring as the young playwright.

But they both tell the story, finishing each other’s sentences, jumping in with the tones of side characters, from Teri Gross to a South African psychiatrist, to Mother Teresa, to fill out another of Watson’s fascinating tales.

It’s a fast-moving 100 minutes that has such a velocity, it smooths over parts of the play that don’t seem to have much to do with the central issue. You know, though, that when you reach a point as when Watson calls the family of the fallen soldier to find some answers, that they’re hitting something close to truth.

O’Brien’s play could have been solely comprised of moments like that, but he chose instead to insert himself into the story about how he tried to approach the complex journalist and unlikely celebrity. Which may be more entertaining in the end, while not avoiding the sometimes hard to hear truth of modern geopolitics.

It’s a great choice, though, for Theater J at a time when it’s important for it to show its brash interest of the worldview has not diminished.

One of the many additional programs tied to “The Body of an American” is an appearance by Watson himself at the  Newseum May 15 and after a performance at the theater May 19. Don’t expect to ask him what he thinks of O’Brien’s play, though; he hasn’t seen it and doesn’t plan to. Which in a way, is right in character.

 

“The Body of an American” runs through May 22 at Theater J, at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

 

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