To say that "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," a play set in a prison cell in some Middle Eastern country, in an enjoyable evening in the theater is to give you some idea of the play's weaknesses.
A play about three men chained to the wall of a basement room-- at the mercy of unseen Arab captors, and to some extent, of each other-- probably should not quite so diverting.
But what the playwright Frank McGuinness has focused on is how the three men maintain their spirits. They do so by prodding each other into taking flights of imagination, which transforms their dreary cell into a kind of Off-Off-Broadway theater specializing in improvisation.
McGuinness' flights of fancy are beguiling. So is his dialogue, like an exchange early in the play when an American prisoner asks his Irish cellmate, "Don't the Irish like foreplay?" "We invented it," the Irishman replies. "We call it drink."
Each of the characters is a national type: a black American, an Irishman and an Englishman. Himself an Irishman, McGuinness is most successful at creating the two characters closest to home.
His Irishman has a wonderful jauntiness and a constant edge as well as an occasional sense of homely poetry, as in a lovely moment when he recalls the stops on his train line back home. The character is a plum, and Stephen Rea plays him with admirable panache.
McGuinness also understands the academic Englishman. Here, too, his wit has ample room to flow, as when the academic taunts his cellmate about the ethnic aura of Tara: "With a name liek Scarlett O'Hara, she was hardly from Knightsbridge."
With its abundance of dry humor and deliberately restrained emotions, this is a perfect role for the unfailingly graceful and elegant Alec McCowan.
The least developed character is the American, but James McDaniel invests him with great beauty and pathos.
Ultimately the play never gets very deeply into the lives of the three men or into the horror od their situation. Civilized evenings in the theater are too rare for me to complain that, given the subject, this one is a bit too civilized.
As the old joke has it, it only hurts, doctor, when I laugh! It is laughter and hurts, as well as the queasy concept of punishment without crime, that simmer in the guts of Frank McGuinness' absorbing, life-assertive and unexpectedly funny play "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," which opened last night at the Booth Theater.
Nominally it is about an Englishman, and Irishman and an American who all happen to end up as chance hostages to indifferent fortune in the same basement cell one fine day in Beirut. But the real themes are those of survival and freedom.
Freedom is taken for granted with aching ease- even the comparatively limited freedom most of us enjoy. But to be physically imprisoned must be a terrifying thing. And there are all kinds of imprisonments, many degrees of incerceration.
There were always penal imprisonments (for both the guilty and, rarely, we hope, the innocent) and wartime vicissitudes and internments. Now these have been joined by political prisoners (concentration camps, gulags and the like) and this new kind of imprisonment, a political variation on the crime of kidnapping, the taking of hostages.
Imagine. A morning in Beirut. You have visitors coming to dinner, and you suddenly realise you need a few pears to make a pear flan for dessert. You step out to the local market. Bang! You wake up in a small prison cell, chained to a wall, being watched with some curiosity by two other prisoners similarly shackled.
You don't know why you're there. You don't know how long you'll stay there. You don't know the passage of days or the events of the world. And you don't know whether you will live or die, be killed or eventually released. Your life is in a free fall, even your identity has to be fought for.
This is the situation- it's actually also the story- of "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," which had come to us, lock, stock, barrel and cast, from London's West End, where I saw and must admired it last summer.
It is a play with a heart, soul and a sense of humor. It is admittedly, in places, both sentimental and manipulative, and it doesn't probe deeply into the hostage psyche, with no exploration, say, of the "Stockholm syndrome," by which hostages may tend to identify with their captors, no analysis of "innocent-guilt."
McGuinness' overriding concern is with the theatricality of the situation, and the chances it offers for gallows humor, and stiff-upper-lip heroism. This, if you like, is tragedy as entertainment, but with a few home truths on the side.
And on this level it works wondefully well. Certainly it does given the present taut and brilliant staging by Robin Lefevre, and the immaculate performances of its dazzingly natural cast of three hostages- the Englishman, Alec McCowen; the Irishman, Stephen Rea; and the American, James McDaniel.
McDaniel- best remembered as the original con artist in "Six Degrees of Seperation"- is handsomely restrained as the American psychiatrist, finding consolation in calisthenics and religion, and yet with deep intimations of doom.
The spontaneously combustible Rea, conceivably now Ireland's leading actor and surprisingly making his American stage debut, has a wonderful terrier combativeness as a scruffy journalist dreaming of sex, family and Guinness, and perhaps best of all is McCowen.
For long one of Broadway's favorite English actors, McCowen orovides here the prissy embodiment of that oddly English stereotype of the Englishman at bay- fighting the world on a metaphorical diet of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sexually slightly amiguos, and gallant down to the deepest soles of his cotton socks.
Encased in Robin Don's luckily rather bleakly attractive cell scene, Lefevre's staging encourages the actors to go about their often vaudevillian routines with the subtext of survival, taking its key from the playwright's insistence that hostages must either laugh of be destroyed.
But at the end of the play, with one of his hostages clanking his chains with a mixture of anger and despair, McGuinness does offer an image of freedom lost and a world truly gone mad. But even in that anger and despair there prehaps is a quiet defiance, possibly offering a little hope for us all.
Although Ella Fitzgerald's lush rendition of "Someone to Watch Over Me" is piped in after every scene, the new West End import at the Booth is not an adjunct to "Crazy for You" at the Shubert next door. "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," as the Irish writer Frank McGuinness titles his play, is set in a filthy Beirut basement serving as a windowless cell for three hostages. And it features one choreographic gimmick that not even its resourceful musical neighbor came up with: Mr. McGuinness's characters each have a leg shackled to the wall.
I don't mean to sound flip about the evening's subject, but "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" brings its own light touch to grim matters. Mr. McGuinness's view of the hostages' plight is more Beckett than Costa-Gavras. His unpretentious play offers no bombastic speeches about man's inhumanity to man, no onstage violence and no debates about Middle Eastern politics. Instead of exploiting a real-life tragedy to bring a spurious journalistic reality to the stage, Mr. McGuinness uses his premise as a springboard for imagining the fantasies, jokes and spiritual credos with which ordinary men might somehow survive barbaric incarceration.
The goal is worthy but difficult. Not even Beckett always succeeded in keeping plays about boredom from being boring. And Mr. McGuinness, if a charming writer in spurts, is no Beckett. Too much of "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" has the artificial tone of an acting class exercise, as if its cast were doing contrived improvisations designed to show off their skills rather than to reveal characters of real depth. Since those characters are schematically and sometimes stereotypically drawn -- each has a pointedly different nationality, marital status, profession, etc. -- the play is sporadically amusing without being riveting, moving or particularly credible.
The actors are first rate. If an evening of theater games it is to be, who better to play them than Stephen Rea and Alec McCowen? (James McDaniel, as the American among the hostages, has the briefest and least persuasive part.) Mr. Rea, who may be best known to New York audiences for his appearances in films by Mike Leigh ("Life is Sweet") and Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"), is a wiry, vinegary presence as a sardonic young Irish journalist. Mr. McCowen contributes his specialty, prim mellifluous grace, in the role of a prissy British professor of Middle English. Together the long-faced Mr. Rea, all nerve ends, and the old-maidish Mr. McCowen, a pudding of repression, refight both the cultural and political conflicts of Ireland and England to a respectful standoff. As they do so, they form a comedy team that now and then suggests Laurel and Hardy or Oscar and Felix, if not Didi and Gogo.
Though some of the humor is black absurdism, as befits an existential predicament that even the hostages sometimes see as ridiculous, the playwright also concocts extended vaudeville turns. To keep despair and insanity at bay, the men imagine and enact wild movies they might make, lethal cocktails they might drink to excess, provocative letters they might write. They fly away, mentally at least, by singing "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and, in the standout sequence, re-enact Virginia Wade's 1977 victory at Wimbledon, complete with the irrepressible Mr. Rea impersonating Queen Elizabeth.
No one could confuse the parts these actors have here with their greatest roles, but by the final curtain, Mr. McGuinness does let them at least remind the audience of those finer achievements. When Mr. McCowen, fighting off fear, takes valiantly to reciting poetry and when Mr. Rea clings eloquently to his faith in God and family, "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" fleetingly achieves the universality to which it aspires. In the waning moments, Mr. McCowen even achieves a chilling theatrical image -- the production's only one -- to go with the many facile verbal riffs.
The excellent director is Robin Lefevre, last represented in New York by Brian Friel's "Aristocrats." It is neither his nor the talented Mr. McDaniel's fault that the play's third character is an Irish writer's laughably cliched notion of a contemporary black American: a saintly, muscle-bound doctor who, amazingly enough, bursts into an angelic rendition of "Amazing Grace" while the white folks look on in dumbstruck awe.
At that moment (which is the Act I curtain) and a few others, Mr. Lefevre, usually in league with the lighting designer, Natasha Katz, works almost too hard to give "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" a poetic quality. By the fourth or fifth time that Ella sings the evening's signature song to the accompaniment of Nelson Riddle's celestial strings and a matching lighting effect, you may find yourself wishing that someone had followed Ira Gershwin's admonition to "put on some speed."
Sentimental but only occasionally cloying, "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" is the first serious work to test the Broadway waters this season. Even with fine acting and flawless staging by Robin LeFevre, this show about three hostages in a squalid Beirut basement won't have an easy time finding the audience it deserves.
Both the subject and the setting of Frank McGuinness' play are grim. But by concentrating on the inner resourcefulness and ultimately the quiet bravery of these three men, he's written something quite moving. "Someone" isn't art but it's more than a diversion, and it's presented with conviction, not to mention a great deal of humor.
The senior member of the group, incarcerated for four months at the play's outset, is Adam (James McDaniel), an African-American doctor who works off his loneliness and fear through a regimen of constant exercise and reading of the Bible and the Koran, which have been supplied by his captors.
He's soon joined by Edward (Stephen Rea), an edgy Irish journalist who's vocal about his boredom (particularly whenever Adam begins working out).
A bit later, the somewhat prim English academic Michael (Alec McCowen) is added to the mix. Each man is shackled by one leg to a wall and has only a rudimentary mat to sleep on.
Naturally, they draw each other out, filling the time telling stories, spinning out fantasies that are tame compared to those in that other hostage tale, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and--as the Gershwin-derived title implies--looking out for one another.
Not much actually happens in this character study, but each character has a good deal of appeal. Though each of McGuiness's creations has his stereotypical traits, only Adam seems an oddly wishful amalgam. Nevertheless, it's worth the price of admission to hear McDaniel sing "Amazing Grace" as the first act curtain falls, and to observe McCowen's face --immutable in a kind of noble serenity -- as the rendition takes flight.
In the play's funniest set piece, Edward and Michael re-enact Virginia Wade's 1977 Wimbledon triumph over Betty Stove; though it may be predictable that Rea and McCowen hit their comic stride impersonating women (McCowen as Wade, Rea as the Queen), it's no less funny, or touching.
Robin Don's setting is appropriately dingy and sparse, and Natasha Katz's sensitive lighting designs have become among the most reliable in her profession. One could have done with many fewer musical quotations from Ella Fitzgerald's cover of "Someone to Watch Over Me," but that's the only misstep in LeFevre's confident, understated staging.
Had it been produced under the aegis of the Broadway Alliance, "Someone" surely would have given credibility to that plan to bring down Broadway production and ticket prices, and it would probably have ensured a wider audience for the show. As it is, the play will undoubtedly struggle through the holiday weeks, dependent on heavy discounting. What this reflects is the reluctance of major producers to really support the Alliance.