How and When The Body of An American Gets Good

By the time the ending rolled around in The Body of An American - Primary Stages newest offering, now open at the Cherry Lane Theatre - the quiet, content I experienced was unexpected. Largely because…I did NOT think I would have any reaction to the show at all, especially early-on.

In fact, the constructs of The Body of An American are typically recipes for disaster. More fourth-wall narration then dialogue, a plethora of projections that look like Shutterstock  kaboom-ed in the background, an obnoxious usage of self-reference and the only main characters are two white guys, one of which is angst-ing over his not-that-interesting-or-bad life.

I know, concerned you should be.

So yes, the beginning of TBOAA plods along until the important pieces are put in place, about 40-45 minutes in, and the show decides what the hell it is and what it aspires to be. What is it? A sorta docudrama about Paul Watson, the photojournalist who’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph had as much of an impact on the world as a photo can, and Dan O’Brien, the show’s playwright, who strikes up a pen-pal correspondence with Paul while dealing with baggage of his own.

What does it aspire to be? A snapshot (pun not intended) of their ambiguous, unconventional relationship (numerous correspondence - e-mails, texts, phone calls and their in-person visit - pepper the show’s run time) and the demons both gentlemen have encountered, from Paul’s PTSD to Dan’s bewilderment with his own existence and the world at large.

Part of the reason why I started warming up to TBOAA is because Jo Bonney’s kickass direction forced me to. She made the constant audience addressing, the minimal use of props (two chairs that are moved around frequently) and the projections, mostly scenic backdrops, actually worthwhile. And with so many vignettes, Bonney's rapid-fire scene changes were a stroke of wizardry as monotony was never a concern.

O’Briens monologues/dialogues start to accumulate momentum and assert their place, capped off with a perfect scene when Paul and Dan first meet in-person and a weirdly, beautiful sequence where Paul speaks to the brother of the soldier he photographed over the phone. A few golden moments and an unpretentious overall story (that could have been pretentious as fuck, let’s be honest) are enough to forgive the slow start, the multiple endings and the overlong runtime, where 90 minutes with no intermission felt like over two hours.

As the sole performers in the show, Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane are quite good at not only inhabiting Paul and Dan respectively, but for rotating out of a variety of characters who serve as the occasional scene partner for the other. Cumpsty, in particular, breathes life into Paul’s despair (just go with me here), and nails a series of affecting scenes, leading to the most prevalent payoffs in the show (like the aforementioned phone-call scene). I enjoyed Crane’s performance the most when he was cycling through a series of characters - with impressive, convincing ease, I might add - because Dan was the more underwritten role.

Inspite of that and the several other drawbacks I’ve noted, The Body of an American was…a nice surprise of a show that I probably would have disliked under other circumstances. Or worse…felt ambivalent towards.

Photo Credit: James Leynse

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