Photojournalist Paul Watson won a Pulitzer Prize for his image of a U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through a Mogadishu street after a Black Hawk military helicopter was shot down over Somalia in 1993. The physical and emotional hazards of Watson’s line of work are brought to life with extraordinary clarity in Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American,” which won a prestigious honor of its own in 2013, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for drama inspired by American history.
As performed at Theater J, this two-character play — a sort of post-traumatic friendship between Watson and O’Brien — is frequently exhilarating. Thomas Keegan plays O’Brien and Eric Hissom is Watson, and they are a couple of amped-up guys whose veins course with adrenaline. The way O’Brien writes it, they gush dialogue with the fevered intensity of men managing a crisis. Sometimes Watson and O’Brien swap identities, and as the story globe-trots, they play characters from Somalia to Canada. They live on an edge. They seem to share a brain.
Director José Carrasquillo’s production hurtles elegantly through this mindscape. The pinpoint design is an open stage with projections by Tim McLoraine at the back, sometimes of Watson’s photos. Dan Covey’s lights are superb at sweeping the settings from Watson’s hotspots as a Toronto Star (and later a Los Angeles Times) correspondent to the frigid Wisconsin where O’Brien is teaching and emailing Watson about possibly collaborating on a play. Snow falls sideways on the projections as the two men huddle near the Arctic Circle, where Watson’s strange career has led him — and where O’Brien eagerly journeys for a meeting.
The fast-moving play is a tale of haunted men. Watson has said that as he snapped the photos of the slain William David Cleveland, he heard Cleveland’s voice say, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Hissom’s performance is a wonderfully fluid account of Watson: He’s loose and deceptively low-key yet wound tight enough to snap, with a gaze that’s often half-fixed somewhere else. Watson was born without a left hand, a fact Hissom typically renders by clenching his own left hand into a fist; on some level, that registers as another element of the character’s deeply rooted combativeness.
That’s the trait that binds him to O’Brien, played by Keegan as an adventure junkie with a bit of a fanboy crush on the famous photographer. O’Brien is dragging his own ghosts around, family baggage and estrangement that takes a heavy toll. Keegan’s gruff approach to O’Brien is to keep pushing and moving: He’s aggressive, yet not really confident.
That slight imbalance is perfect. These guys are off, and they know it. “Misfits,” Watson says at one point about the crowd he runs with. O’Brien the playwright digs into why, and the 90-minute play eventually shadowboxes so relentlessly that it almost wears itself out. A couple of slower passages are utterly riveting, though — longer speeches from Watson and O’Brien prying open their past, and a late encounter between Watson and Cleveland’s brother that must have been a wrenching reckoning.
A lot of this is true, obviously, and you have to admire the pressurized shape that the writer has found for his story. Also admirable is the grace of Carrasquillo’s lean, high-octane show. You feel for these men — by the way, Watson will talk about his work Sunday, May 15, at a Pulitzer-related Newseum event — and you also get a sobering reflection of the effect that the Mogadishu photo had on world events over the years.
Final note: O’Brien’s play shared the first Kennedy Prize in 2013 with “All the Way,” the LBJ drama now playing at Arena Stage. All the other winners except this year’s (“Hamilton,” of course) have been seen around here lately, with Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)” at Round House Theatre in February and Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67” running at Baltimore’s Center Stage (temporarily based in Towson) through this weekend. That’s a solid body of work, a heady streak that has given area theater an invigorating jolt.
The Body of an American, by Dan O’Brien. Directed by José Carrasquillo. Co-production designers, Marie Schneggenburger and Jonathan Dahm Robertson; sound, Brendon Vierra. About 90 minutes. Through May 22 at Theater J in the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets $37-$67. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.