Paul Watson is, by all evidence, a fascinating man. Best known for a famous photograph of the corpse of a UN soldier being desecrated on the streets of Mogadishu, the Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter and photographer seems a fascinating contradiction. All manic energy and deep, haunted guilt; a man whose work has had a measurable impact on major political and social events. The Body of an American, Dan O’Brien’s award-winning play currently up at Theater J has found an ideal actor in Eric Hissom to embody his brilliant contradictions.
Hissom’s a wonder in the role, all coiled potential energy with brief bursts of spastic loss of control or near catatonic depression. The action starts at whipcrack pace during the events of the Battle of Mogadishu, famously depicted in the film Black Hawk Down.
Watson snaps a photo of the corpse of a U.N. peacekeeper being beaten in the streets, that will earn him fame, notoriety and a mountain of guilt. Seemingly too intense for one actor, Hissom is joined by Thomas Keegan in these early scenes as something akin to Watson’s superego. The two split a monologue, often picking up from each other mid-sentence and the effect is thrillingly disorienting. The great local director José Carrasquillo is at his best here, making the most of a nearly bare stage, two physically sharp, game actors, and some immersive battlefield sound-design from Brendon Vierra.
Body slows down after these initial scenes. and much of the rest of the play is about playwright Dan O’Brien’s struggles with researching and identifying with Watson, his subject matter-cum-obsession. O’Brien inserts himself into the action early on and is played by Keegan, who is fine in the less showy of the two roles. A majority of Body of An American is adapted from email and live conversations between O’Brien and Watson, but too often the focus of that material is on the relatively generic personal journey of O’Brien himself, as he struggles to find his way, first an adjunct professor in Wisconsin and later a working writer in Los Angeles.
The Body of an American
closes May 22, 2016
Details and tickets
Perhaps O’Brien meant this as a form of self-criticism, comparing his privileged but staid writer’s life with that of the existentially tortured but adventurous Watson, but that doesn’t make the material any more interesting. Body feels padded at 90 minutes, especially later scenes in which O’Brien journeys to arctic Canada to finally meet Watson, now living in semi-exile. These late scenes are only fitfully entertaining, and I found myself wondering why we’re not hearing more about Watson’s experiences on the war beat, rather than his opinions on The Bachelor. The effect is to turn the play into something of an Odd Couple style buddy comedy, and the shift in tone isn’t particularly effective.
More successful is a climactic conversation between Watson and a family member of his famous subject. Keegan is at his best here as the relative. O’Brien strips away the structural tricks, trusts his characters, and lets the tension build and break with a natural catharsis. Body of An American is fine entertainment and features a brilliant performance from Hissom but the less interesting, interview process-focused sections undercut its impact, ironic given the wide-reaching impact of the fascinating personality at the play’s center.
The Body of An American by Dan O’Brien. Director: José Carrasquillo; Production Designers: Marie Schneggenburger, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; Sound Design: Brenden Vierra; Projection Design: Tim McLoraine; Lighting Design: Dan Covey; Fight Director: Cliff Williams III; Production Stage Manager: Jeanette Buck. Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.