Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

The Body of an American
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane
Photo by photo by T. Charles Erickson
The Body of an American, at Hartford Stage through January 31st before moving to Primary Stages in New York less than two weeks later, is an exceptionally well-enacted piece written by Dan O'Brien. Based upon true experience, this two-hander's source is O'Brien's life and his longtime connection with Paul Watson, a journalistic photographer. A hybrid form combining a variety of genres including docudrama, rear wall projection, anecdote, and face-face relationship, it is oftentimes yet not always fully gripping.

The playwright was listening to "Fresh Air" on NPR one evening when he heard photographer Watson speaking to Terry Gross of his time in Mogadishu, Somalia. In 1993, as Watson was poised to take a picture, a solider, about to expire, said, "If you take this photo, I will own you forever." Watson received a Pulitzer Prize for that photograph. O'Brien had been trying to craft a work about ghosts, and now he would live with Watson's words for years. The two men, in touch for the most part through emails and otherwise, would eventually get together.

The scripting of the play enables us to learn of Watson's travels throughout Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Watson repeatedly risked his own life as he, a native of Canada, proceeded. The play tells stories of both men. Michael Crane embodies O'Brien and a few other people while Michael Cumpsty also shifts but is, for the most part, Watson. Watson asks O'Brien, "What to they look like, your plays?" Watson, who evidently has not been at ease communicating closely with many, becomes intrigued with O"Brien.

They finally meet in the Canadian Arctic area. O'Brien, a number of years younger than Watson, has hoped for great revelation. Watson, though, becomes a listener as O'Brien opens up. The writer has had his own problematic dealings with his family. The roles reverse ... and this is not the first time they do so during the evening.

Cumpsty and Crane are each splendid and they've forged a give-and-take chemistry which amplifies as the 95-minute drama unveils itself. Each has a distinctive voice and they work together as if they've known one another for decades. They are fervent, concerned, open, acute—whatever it takes. Crane has the difficult task of presenting an O'Brien who is searching, dedicated, but not terribly sure of himself. Cumpsty's nails this problematic role. One discerns that Watson, who at various intervals in his life has photographed people during difficult times, is a complicated man. He tries to be warm but he is conflicted. O'Brien, too, can become agitated as he struggles to find himself. Each of these souls is, in his own way, thoughtfully sensitive.

Dan O'Brien is a talented, specific, knowing playwright. He introduces, through the two characters, various relatives, a therapist, hotel workers, and others. The playwright presents himself as a man struggling, at times, with himself. Jo Bonney, directing a work which has previously received a number of awards, gives the actors space and also facilitates with specificity. The balance is excellent as they are often moving about. Richard Hoover's scenic design: a bare stage with two chairs. Alex Basco Koch supplies the essential projections which are sometimes deliberately blurry and sometimes quite clear. Darron L. West's sounds are of great importance since they replicate and influence mood as do Lap Chi Chu's lighting choices.

The Body of an American is, during a number of sequences, magnetically involving. That is not the case, however, throughout the evening. The dramatic flow sometimes ebbs—just a bit. It is a play about war and also a play about life. When the tension holds and permeates, the live theater is fully affecting. The play is always richly educational.

The Body of an American continues at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, through January 31st, 2016. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit

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