What is it like to be a photojournalist, recording atrocities and mayhem at hot spots around the globe? What type of person would subject themselves to the strain and rigors of traveling and working in such far off places? What about their psychological make-up? These are some of the questions playwright Dan O’Brien explores in his, at times, riveting but uneven two-person play, The Body of an American. The production, playing at Hartford Stage until January 31st, covers the real life relationship of O’Brien (Michael Crane) and photojournalist Paul Watson (Michael Cumpsty).
The show unfolds in an explosive, rat-a-tat manner. In quick succession, during the opening segment, actor Michael Crane portrays numerous characters that augment Michael Cumpsty’s character as he recounts one of his most sensational and graphic photos, which resulted in him winning a Pulitzer Prize. A judicious use of rear screen projections heightens the harrowing narrative. The two performers are almost in constant motion on the small raised platform, supplemented only by two chairs. From this absorbing beginning the play turns to documenting the growing fellowship between the men. Initially, Watson is cool to O’Brien’s pursuit. Email is the communication of choice. Eventually, the two do meet—and rendezvous near an Arctic outpost. In between the back and forth we hear personal ruminations and soul searching by each person, as well as more of Watson’s compelling and incisive stories.
At this point playwright O’Brien veers the content of the show towards the psychological as both men, in sometimes haunting soliloquies, bring up the demons that haunt them. This part of the production is less captivating then the earlier half of the play. There is a lot of introspection and long monologues, which gives the audience a somewhat clearer picture of the two character’s motivations and self-analysis, but doesn’t always make for engrossing theater.
Both actors, seasoned professionals, give solid performances. Michael Crane, who was gripping in last season’s Off-Broadway drama, Gloria, is equally intense and impassioned as Dan O’Brien. He brings a tenacious determination to his role as the playwright. He is equally adept at playing many other roles, including Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air;” and a Somalia translator. Michael Cumpsty is all-consuming as the tormented photojournalist Paul Watson. The actor brings a world-weariness and heartache to the character. He is also skillful, when called upon, to play other secondary roles.
Director Jo Bonney shows a deft hand while guiding the performers through the fast paced introductory part of the play. He has little room to embellish as every movement and gesture seems methodically thought out and executed on the small performing area. His incorporation of Alex Basco Koch’s highly effective Projection Design brings a powerful dimension to the production. Only towards the end, when both characters are in a reflective and summation mode, does the pulsating rhythm of the show sag.
The Body of an American, playing at Hartford Stage through January 31st.