Sunday, September 11, 2005

opening-night review of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

at Interplayers through Oct. 1

An American physician, an Irish journalist and a British professor, stuck in a room somewhere in the Middle East, each chained by the ankle, each fairly sure he may never get away alive from their unseen captors -- Frank McGuinness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me has a stark and unforgiving premise. With no costumes, props or set to speak of, it's visually bleak, drawing us into the monotony of political prisoners shackled under bare light bulbs. With no background noise, we're as cut off from the outside world as these characters are.
And so Someone comes down entirely to dialogue and themes and acting -- there's nothing else for the audience to fasten upon. Director Nike Imoru's production (through Oct. 1 at Interplayers) captures many episodes of despair and hope and anger and silliness --and the closing moments of both acts are stunning -- but there are too many unconvincing exchanges early on for this to rate yet as a fully gripping production.
Just in the first scene, Michael Maher (as Edward, the Irishman) paces and complains about boredom without letting enough downtime transpire to convince us that he's really bored; in both his voice and his body language, Charles Gift (as Adam, the American) displays mere anger instead of the kind of despair that would make you think he just, might, do, anything. As a result, their characters' face-off (Irish vs. American, despair vs. hope) comes off as unconvincing. Like dogs chained just out of each other's reach, they can't really hit each other anyway. But we need to feel that they just might break out of those chains and hurt someone bad, right now. And we don't.
Maher has an unsettling, back-of-the-throat voice that garbles too many moments with the potential for resonance. Especially in Act One, he skips past emotional beats, rushing the dialogue until an expression of sadness or an outburst of sarcasm can fully register.
Of the three cast members, the best portrayal is by Bill Caisley as a professor of medieval literature and proud son of England. His closed-in, ineffectual gestures convey at first the prissy weakness of a man unsuited to a life without scones and a nice cup of tea, let alone the miseries of a hostage. Caisley's Michael fixates on the routine he was about when he was so rudely kidnapped by these Hezbollah men, or whoever they are -- and he makes the loss of one special dessert seem like the loss of everything that gives life value.
As you might expect from a play that has a jokey-sounding setup (An Englishman, an Irishman and a Yank are chained up inside a room, and the Irishman says ...), McGuinness is keen on exploring nationalistic stereotypes. As a Brit, Caisley movingly explores the disadvantages of maintaining the stiff upper lip: He shows us the effort it takes a man like Michael to break free of emotional constipation -- and the mixed rewards of making that breakthrough. Maher, while he paces aimlessly during some monologues and in general makes less use of expressive body language than his two cast mates, nevertheless has an uncanny way of outlining the compassion that breaks through his crusty Irishman's sarcastic hide. There are moments when Maher blurts out words of empathy when, just moments before, his Edward had been an unfeeling jerk; more of them would have sharpened the characterization.
There's a great curtain to Act One, though, that blends the recounting of a medieval tale with the singing of a church hymn to provide a hopeful note as we head into the comfort of cookies at intermission -- this, after having shared squalid circumstances for more than an hour with three hoping-not-to-be-hopeless souls trapped as political prisoners.
Similarly, there's a moment near the conclusion, a show of solidarity between prisoners, that takes one of the professor's historical anecdotes, redeploying it so that it ricochets with compassion among the prisoners and then shoots out into the audience, a symbol of what we might achieve, if only.
The overall effect of such moments of mastery, however -- along with several genuinely comic exchanges -- is that the script comes off better in this production than the acting itself generally does.
McGuinness is a master at making small changes resonate. Shifts in routine become losses. The men spin fantasies and talk on and on until the strain is too much and someone blurts out a blunt question like "When will they let us out of here?" -- and the ensuing silence becomes in itself, a damning answer. They're stuck in a room, they want out, they're scared -- so obvious, so difficult to own up to.
And it's here that McGuinness' play proves its relevance, even a dozen years past its premiere and well into our post-9/11 climate. The characters themselves complain about the injustice -- how could Hezbollah do this to us, to innocent men in the '80s? But the bigger-impact question, a dozen years into Someone's lifespan, is this: Will an American audience today, in the English/Irish/Yankee faces in Beirut, see reflections of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds unjustly accused and now holed up and forgotten in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? It is wrenching to see how much these three men miss their wives, their children, all the details of the lives from which they were ripped away.
But so it is with the "unlawful detainees," or at least the considerable numbers of them who did nothing unlawful. Yet we look away -- at them, at political prisoners of all stripes, everywhere.
McGuinness' play -- given an uneven production here -- circles back with relevance on our lives in another way, too. The three hostages in the play, it becomes clear, use their imaginations, their sense of humor, to survive brutal circumstances. It's existential: I make a joke, therefore I can endure. In the scenes, well played here, in which the three men "film" imaginary movies, playgoers might sense, with a start, that they're seeing reflections of themselves: It isn't a big step from a movie-within-a--play to the distraction of stepping outside this stage on which we play and escaping into a good theatrical performance for a couple of hours. Someone Who'll Watch Over Me will keep getting performed because, as Ella Fitzgerald's voice kept reminding us during the scene breaks, we're all just watching out, hoping against hope that someone out there -- God, loved ones, the quality of sheer human resilience -- is watching out for each one of us.


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