Playwright: Dan O'Brien. At: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets: 773-975-8150 or TheaterWit.org; $20-30. Runs through: June 19
The Body of An American needs to be tackled by actors but absorbed by the audience, and Stage Left Theatre gives this deceptive yet engrossing work a riveting Midwest debut at Theater Wit. The play simultaneously manages to start without preamble but zigzags continuously through backstory, which playwright Dan O'Brien likens to the disorientation of PTSD.
The play's topic and genesis are nonfiction. In 2007, in the midst of writing a play about ghosts, O'Brien heard a Fresh Air interview with Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Paul Watson. Watson's no stranger to horror and deathhis bylines include Kabul and Iraqbut he's best known for a photo he took in Somalia in 1993 of a dead American soldier, Sgt. William David Cleveland Jr. It's a controversial shotWatson's character postulates that the photo led to American withdrawal from Somalia and tragic reluctance to intervene in Rwanda's genocide a year laterand as Watson snapped it, he heard the phrase "If you do this, I'll own you forever," resounding in his head. He's convinced Cleveland still haunts him.
So begins an intense 95 minutes of barking, rapid-fire, intertwining dialogue with both Don Bender as Watson and Ryan Hallahan as O'Brien more than thirty different roles to illustrate autobiographical scenes, or occasionally doubling up to portray the same character. ( O'Brien described his play as "a one man show for two actors" ). Bender employs visceral physicality in portraying Watson, who was born with no left hand, and thus Bender's left hand is a noticeable inert curl for nearly the entire show. As the photographer's stories span so many places, producers wisely opted for a minimal, two-chair set and a multitude of projected backdrops, some of which include Watson's photos.
Acquaintanceship with the past 25 years of world conflict greatly enhances this play's viewing. That said, watching O'Brien slowly unravel Watson's existence is compelling even without much grounding. The pair start as strangers over email, O'Brien clearly wanting to interrogate Watson and Watson clearly dismissive. There is humor, dark and brimming with nihilism; the energy masculine. Both men have their secrets but are reluctant to reveal them, whether it's because they're afraid to be emotional or they're afraid to have their craziness, which they separately attribute as a driving force behind their professions, snatched out from underneath them. Watson's trauma is more obvious and immediate; it takes a while to work towards O'Brien's personal damage.
Sgt. Cleveland's presence is mostly forgotten as Watson and O'Brien debate depression, the decline of journalism, and reality TV. In a way, Cleveland haunts the play as well, though he is eventually readdressed. The Body of An American is one of those plays that could continue indefinitely, like a late-night conversation with a close friend. Energy never drops offin fact, the final third seems to escalate if anythingbut by the last words, an intimacy between the performers has solidified, and the audience should feel privileged to see it.