Review: ‘The Body of an American’ at Theater J

A true story that begins with the desecration of a dead body becomes, before our eyes and hearts, a living and breathing buddy story. Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American is an intimate two-hander about a unique friendship between two men. In the engrossing production just opened at Theater J, it is performed so poignantly and personally there are moments you forget you’re watching a play.

Eric Hissom and Thomas Keegan. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Eric Hissom and Thomas Keegan. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Its two stars create a stage reality that is physically, emotionally, and psychically stunning. Eric Hissom plays a photojournalist and war correspondent named Paul Watson; Thomas Keegan plays Dan O’Brien, the playwright himself; and between them they take actor trust and character truth to extraordinary depths.

Watson and O’Brien’s friendship is framed within a factual narrative about American militarism and foreign policy. In 1993 Watson is on assignment in Somalia during the battle known as Black Hawk Down, and he takes a photograph of a United States soldier’s corpse being dragged through the streets by an angry mob.

The impact of that photograph is immense (uncannily like the iconic 1989 photo of a lone protester standing against a tank in Tiananmen Square that was the genesis of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica). Watson’s photograph prompts President Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops, and the next year it wins a Pulitzer Prize. (A chilling line in the play points to Watson’s shot as a possible precursor to 9/11: “Al-Qaeda learned a lot from the propaganda value of that photograph.”)

In 2007 O’Brien listens to Watson on NPR tell Terrie Gross the story of that photo and how it has haunted him since. Watson believes that just before he took the picture, he heard the dead soldier say, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” O’Brien, sensing in the story an opportunity for dramatization, reaches out to Watson and kind of stalks him by email, and their ensuing correspondence and 2010 meeting form the basis of the play O’Brien wrote and we are watching.

O’Brien’s script sometimes has both actors playing the same character, with fragments of a single speech spliced quickly between them—an affected effect that at the beginning takes getting used to. At other times each actor voices a score of minor characters with a veracity that’s to their credit as well as Dialect Coach Neill Hartley’s. (Hissom’s and Keegan’s mimicry of Terrie Gross, however, is more mincing than convincing.) Eventually as the play settles in to telling us who these men are and how their connection intersects their separate lives—especially as we learn what haunts them (“The ghosts are getting closer”)—Hissom’s performance as Watson  and Keegan’s performance as O’Brien emerge as some of the most powerful and persuasive actor partnering you’re likely to see electrify a stage.

The play is well served by the creative team. Sound Designer Brendon Vierra starts off with a bang: hovering helicopter and thunderous explosives. About halfway through, O’Brien and Watson finally meet in person, in the Arctic, and Lighting Designer Dan Covey creates such cool storytelling effects as their stepping from temperate interior to frigid exterior.

Thomas Keegan and Eric Hissom. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Thomas Keegan and Eric Hissom. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Co-Production Designers Marie Schneggenburger and Jonathan Dahm Robertson provide a triangular thrust, and upstage of it a rectangular projection screen. Projection Designer Tim McLoraine shows a subtly informative full-screen flow of documentary footage and stills, some of which are actual shots by Watson. I found myself puzzling, however, over the persistent picture-in-picture effect, which was often devoid of meaning (though never to the detriment of the play).

Near the end of The Body of an American there is a brief tableau  when Hissom as Watson stretches out his hands as if in crucifixion and Keegan as O’Brien stands behind him, mirrors the gesture with his own arms, then gently rests his head upon Hissom’s shoulder. In is in such moments—when what torments and tethers these two characters is exquisitely, poetically physicalized—that we can surmise the superb hand of Director José Carrasquillo guiding two absolutely phenomenal performances.

They are the reason this show is a must-see.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Body of an American plays through May 22, 2016, at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s  Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.