THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN
DEAD DOG PARK
The Body of an American is not an easy play to describe, but that may be all to the good. It’s about real guys.
Paul Watson, Canadian photojournalist, is in Mogodishu in 1993, covering the Somalia uprising. He takes a photo of an American soldier’s body being dragged through the streets by boys. As he lifts the camera, he hears a voice both in and outside of his head; he knows it isn’t his. It says, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” In a way it does. The picture gets him a Pulitzer Prize and becomes perhaps the defining photo of his career, crystallizing an enormous retroactive guilt he has to live with; that as a war correspondent, his having had a good day means someone else had to suffer. He writes a book about his experiences: Where War Lives. It becomes one of the Globe and Mail’s 100 most notable books of 2007.
Playwright Dan O’Brien reads the book, emails Watson—he thinks there’s a play in all this, somewhere. Though normally reticent about correspondence, something about O’Brien intrigues Watson. Thus begins a long exchange of emails. They don’t meet in person for years, until finally Watson invites O’Brien to join him in Yellowknife, a small city with a subarctic climate in the Northwest Territories of Canada, there to discuss rather intense life philosophies.
The play, a two-hander, is about those two men and that relationship, and their backstories as revealed to each other within that relationship. Primarily Michael Cumpsty plays Watson and Michael Crane plays O’Brien, but at unpredictable moments, most of which seem to occur during narrative transition or flashback, they switch off; not only trading roles but assuming the roles of others they encounter in the past or present. It’s absolutely fluid and, once the surprise of the device wears off and sinks in, absolutely clear, broadening the sense of panorama, even though the stage is barren of anything but a (perhaps deceptively) rudimentary design that allows for movable chairs and some projections. Under Jo Bonney’s direction, the pair play off each other beautifully; and if Crane as the acolyte seems somewhat the less powerful of the two, it’s a fitting (however unintentional) disparity—Watson should naturally be the charismatic figure and the fascinating enigma; and in delivering that, Cumpsty may be giving the best performance of his career. He gives us a man full of contradictions: deeply haunted, somewhat self-destructive, personal life a shambles—yet always controlled, matter-of-fact and wry about it, as if watching himself and bemusedly entertained by it all.
But that’s not the only “best”—as often happens with plays that are quietly theatrical, like Wit and How I Learned to Drive, modest-seeming things that almost sneak in on little cat’s paws, that need little more than a room and an audience—it’s the ideas and language and unique characterizations of The Body of an American that explode in your mind, even as they take root. So far, I’d mark it the best play of the season.
By pure coincidence, the evening after I finished writing the review above, I saw Dead Dog Park (or as the author’s script would have it, dEAD dOG pARK) by Barry Malawer, which arguably gives The Body of an American a run for its money as an important new drama.
On the one hand, it doesn’t really cover new ground. Variations on story it tells has been told before, in particular on television. It starts with a cop looking out fourth story window in an abandoned tenement building, from which a 14 year old black kid has fallen. The cop had been chasing the kid. Did he try to grab the escaping kid to save him; or did he push him?
In drama, the basic premise goes back at least to 1969, a crossover episode of the ABC TV series Felony Squad and Judd for the Defense, called “The Law and Order Blues.” I may not recall this entirely correctly—I saw it but the once, so put “I think” after every plot-step—the cop played by Howard Duff is chasing a black murder suspect who falls down a flight of stairs; defense lawyer Clinton Judd (Carl Betz) has to defend the black guy (Brock Peters) against a murder charge, and one of the big questions is did the cop push him or did he fall accidentally? Now, why did this make such an impression? No, not my semi-renowned TV geekoid reflex; this was quite different. I was maybe 15, my parents were away on vacation, and left my younger brother and me in the charge of Bessie Thompson, the African American house worker (she absolutely refused the term maid) who came to clean twice a week and was something of an auxiliary parent, watching us grow up. I knew, of course, that the cop would not have pushed the suspect, because he was the ethical hero of Felony Squad, even though the racial controversy in which he was embroiled was perfectly understandable as drama; but as drama you were also meant to worry whether the cop would be exonerated. Ms. Thompson was understandably more concerned about the victim, but vehemently so—to the point of not quite factoring in that these were actors, that the script was written, and that the convention of the time would not have presented a morally ambiguous cop as a series hero. As far as she was concerned, Howard Duff had actually, and these are her words, “pushed that boy down the stairs!” And no attempt to frame the event as TV drama held any sway. She got very angry at me and said, “You don’t understand!” The episode had triggered all sorts of bad associations, and her righteous indignation was more charged than the episode. And this collision of perspectives is, of course, key to Mr. Malawer’s play.
In Dead Dog Park, though, the cop, Rob McDonald (Tom O’Keefe) is not beyond reproach, and absolutely exists as a figure of moral ambiguity, not least to himself. Which makes things difficult for his wife (Suzannah Millonzi) and his partner (Migs Govea); further fuels the rage and determination of the kid’s mother (Eboni Flowers), and gives mercenary, famously flamboyant attorney (Ryann Quinn) much ammo to work with. The victim (Jude Tibeau) isn’t someone we’ll meet until much later. Years later.
What makes the play worth attention is the full, layered characterizations dealt out with brisk economy, the muscular drive of the dialogue, the avoidance of anything neatly resolved, the surprisingly decades-long timeline arc and the bracing reminder that such things still happen over 45 years after that crossover TV episode.
Just as impressive is the work of the cast and the direction of Eric Tucker, who reduces the physicality of the play to a black box essence not made mandatory by the play, yet preserving everything important and eliciting—in some ways reveling in the ability to elicit—the complicity of the audience to fill in many blanks. Which may even be a metaphor for the long game of the play itself.
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