Theater review: “The Body of an American” and reality hunger

Dan O'Brien's new play makes memoir and biography into a reality sandwich

A couple of years ago, David Shields wrote a book called “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” Some of it aggravated me quite a bit, especially when he insisted that “Hamlet” should be reduced to the soliloquies. Nonetheless, even a couple of years ago, I could tell he was onto something, because the explosion of memoirs, a manifestation of reality hunger, had already begun.

And it has continued, this desire for the real deal, the truth, subjective as it is. In these precincts we need only mention Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Chronology of Water,” yes? Especially “Wild,” Strayed’s account of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which was #1 for several weeks on the NYT’s best-seller list?

But this is actually a review of Portland Center Stage’s world premiere of Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American,” which opened over the weekend at Portland Center Stage, starring (and I do mean starring) Danny Wolohan and William Salyers, an interesting entanglement of memoir and biography brought to the stage.  We’ve seen performance memoirs before, from Spalding Gray to Mike Daisey, not to mention “memory plays” and autobiographical plays, “The Body of an American” is different in my experience: more explicitly memoir than the memory plays, more theatrical (in the traditional sense) than Gray or Daisey.

I bring up Reality Hunger just because that’s a good description of O’Brien’s state of mind in “The Body of an American,” at least to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

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Paul: I’m sick of being lied to. And I take it as a challenge to make sure nobody’s lying to me.

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Danny Wolohan and William Salyers in “The Body of an American” at Portland Center Stage/Patrick Weishampel

As “The Body of an American” begins, O’Brien, the real playwright, is at Princeton working on a play about ghosts. He hears real war correspondent Paul Watson on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air,” talking about his memoir and especially his famous photograph of the abuse of the body of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland Jr. by Somali crowds in Mogadishu in 1993, part of the incident dramatized in “Black Hawk Down.”  O’Brien becomes, well, maybe “obsessed” isn’t too strong a word, and he begins a lengthy email correspondence with Watson.

What makes him so curious? I chalk it up to Reality Hunger. O’Brien thinks that Watson, who has reported from all the hotspots of the 1990s, from Rwanda to Iraq to, yes, Somalia, is a hero, someone who has really encountered life, really lived it. O’Brien has lived his life sheltered inside the bubble of academe, researching history and converting it to drama. In other words, he hasn’t really experienced reality at all.

During the course of “The Body of an American,” O’Brien figures out that this formulation of his, that Watson has lived a real life and he hasn’t, is desperately incomplete if not just plain wrong. And, of course, we learn that, too, sitting in the audience, perhaps seeking to feed our own Reality Hunger.

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Without going into it so deeply that we spoil the play (though really, you should consider this a spoiler alert, I suppose, if you want the full surprise of the play), I’ll just say that Watson is a very troubled man, troubled by what he’s seen around the world and how difficult it is to make any sense of it, but maybe more troubled by his own life, his own personal history. And he’s troubled by that famous photograph, mostly because he heard a voice inside his head just as he took it: “If you do this, I will own you forever.”

O’Brien isn’t immune from trouble, either, because the nuclear family of middle-class America is just chocked full of various sorts of psychological storm and stress, the kind that is both very familiar but also very particular. He doesn’t think he deserves to feel as bad as he does, especially compared to Watson, because he hasn’t seen piles of dead bodies. But depression and compulsive behavior don’t actually require lots of dead bodies, do they?

So, yes, the first half of “The Body of an American” sorts out O’Brien and Watson’s personal histories, cleverly, with Holohan as O’Brien taking on other characters in Watson’s life, his South African therapist, for example, and lots of jump cuts that take us all over the globe and into various armed struggles and topics. As grim as I’ve made it sound, it’s also funny in a dark sort of way. And we track everything easily, because of the slide projections of Watson’s photos and maps, the acting and the direction by Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who has avoided the trap of the Important Moment, in favor of a more liquid flow of the material.

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In Act Two, Wolohan and Salyers head to the Arctic./Patrick Weishampel

Danny Wolohan as Dan and William Salyers as Paul play off each other and sink into explanatory reverie, as their characters try to achieve some sort of self-understanding that might rescue them. They are different ages. Paul is older, he’s had his climactic encounters and made his compromises as he’s watched the news business, his business, disintegrate around him. Maybe he isn’t quite so all or nothing. Maybe he accepts a little lying or gets that the truth has its limits and that they aren’t marked by clear lines. Salyers moves toward that position as the play proceeds, becoming more real as a character, less abstract.

Wolohan keeps things revved up, firing up the rapid exchanges with Salyers, burning a little hotter at times, pressing Salyers with his questions, those persistent emails, pushing for an in-person meeting, fighting to find his ground, reporting with a satirical eye from the prosaic American towns (if you consider LA prosaic) where he finds himself writing.

“I like things that happened to someone else a long time ago,” he says early in the play, but “The Body of an American” keeps surfacing in the present. And finally, in the second act, Dan and Paul meet up, in the Arctic, where Paul is working on a story about the effects of climate change, and we know that this is a realistic account because honestly, not much dramatic happens. Maybe that’s because our realizations, the ones we can depend on, are so rarely flashes of lightning and more like slow dawnings?

If you like your theater traditional, this is going to be a problem, though, because “The Body of an American” doesn’t conclude, really. Watson and O’Brien part, they go on with their lives, maybe they’ll work together again, but this is all outside the play. Personally, I have no problem with this. Would we believe a psychological breakthrough that clarifies everything? What would that look like, anyway?

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Yes, I think Shields is at least partly right. We have a Reality Hunger, surrounded as we are by media fantasies of various sorts that seduce us away from… what? Conscious living? I don’t know. But at the same time we have a hunger for dramatic moments and breakthroughs and endings (happy or otherwise), for turning points and climaxes and simple truths forcefully spoken. A story that will make it all better.

When Paul talks about lying, that’s not exactly what he’s talking about. He’s talking about specific untruths knowingly told by governments, including our own, about real events, fictions that might be self-serving but then again, might be for the greater good.

O’Brien explores that in the play, Paul’s concern that his photograph, depicting the “truth” of what happened on a Mogadishu street to the body of an American Ranger, began a cascade of events that climaxed with 9/11 and the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Not that I’m going to conclude with some relativist position regarding the truth and its usefulness, because, hey, this is a theater review!

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O’Brien hasn’t sated his Reality Hunger. He’s working on a memoir play and another play with Watson. Here’s what he wrote for HowlRound recently:

“My new focus—what should I call it? docudrama? recent-history play? transmigrated autobiography?—could mean I’ll be writing more socially-engaged plays, whatever that means exactly. More political theatre. And it’s true that I’m researching a play with Paul about an English school in Kabul where the children of the Taliban in the ’90s were educated, and where Talib chieftains would meet to discuss and debate their future as the U.S. invasion loomed in 2001.”

And the LA Center Group recently commissioned him to write a play about California, “how a state with such an astonishing GDP perpetually teeters on the brink of financial collapse.” Something tells me it’s going to be hard to a satisfy a Reality Hunger in that topic, but O’Brien, maybe because of this particular project, seems to have figured out something, an approach, a platform for conducting his researches, of whatever sort.

“The Body of an American” feels that real, that necessary, both to O’Brien and to Watson, and maybe to Salyers and Wolohan, too, though we’d have to ask them. And to Rauch? I’m inclined to assign the sense of restlessness that the play contains, how it hops about so madly, especially at first, from line to line and place to place, to Rauch. The play seems to interrogate itself sometimes, which after all, is a good thing for a memoir to do, isn’t it?

NOTES

I wrote about “The Body of an American” in 2011, when it was part of the JAW festival.

Marty Hughley reviewed the play for The Oregonian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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