The reasons for the play’s almost constant presence on American stages at first seem obvious. A brief description of McGuinness’s serio-comedy would seem to suggest a certain ease of production. After all, there are only three characters, all of them chained to the walls of a dungeon-like chamber in a nondescript building in Beirut, Lebanon, with all three wearing costumes that are basically rags.
In actuality, “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is both more complicated and more taxing than at first appears to be the case.
Now the play has returned, in a strong, intelligent production directed by George C. Heslin, the Limerick City native perhaps best-known as the artistic director of the Origin Theatre Company. The new staging is a production of the Breakthrough Theatre, and will occupy the downstairs space at the Gene Frankel Theater at 24 Bond St. through the 30th of the month.
On the surface, McGuinness’s play, which had a healthy Broadway run in l992, looks like a setup for one of those lifeboat jokes in which three extremely diverse individuals find themselves in close confinement from which they are unable to escape.
The author, a noted scholar and translator of classic literature, gives us a thorny Irish journalist, Edward, the first of the trio to have been captured and enchained, fairly recently joined by a second man, an American army doctor named Adam. The Irishman has been imprisoned for some four months, while the American has been in the dingy vault for about half that long.
Soon after the play begins, the two are joined by a third captive, Michael, a British academic who had been teaching classical English literature at the university in Beirut. He had been nabbed in the course of an extremely mundane shopping trip in which he was searching for fresh fruit with which to make his “famous” pear flan for a dinner party he was planning.
McGuinness’s inventive skills are put to the test of keeping the play on its nimble feet, despite the fact that, for the most part, his characters, awake or asleep, are sprawled out on the cold, damp floor of the space in which they are held prisoner.
In the original Broadway production, the Englishman, Michael, was played by Alec McCowan, at that point the best-known member of the cast. The Irish journalist, Edward, marked the American stage debut of Stephen Rea, then an Irish actor known only vaguely, if at all, to New York audiences.
Adam was played by James McDaniel, a sturdy African-American actor with an outstanding singing voice. His rendition of “Amazing Grace,” toward the end of the play’s two acts, was one of the production’s high points.
If memory serves, McDaniel is the only black performer ever to be cast as the doctor, a role written without specific racial references, although his imprisonment at the hands of Arab captors seemed at the time to add a certain significant resonance.
McGuinness’s play was very clearly written under the influence of the prolonged Irianian hostage situation which took place during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, badly damaging its place in history.
Recent events in the Middle East have, unsurprisingly, shed a measure of fresh light on the events depicted in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” even though the play isn’t overtly political and lives or dies in direct proportion to the degree of involvement the production manages to create between the audience and the playwright’s imprisoned trio.
In this respect, Heslin’s well-cast, bare bones production scores high points. It’s interesting, especially for audience members familiar with the play from previous stagings, to see how casting can alter some of the work’s subtleties.
Wholly apart from the skin color of the actor playing the American doctor, changes abound in Heslin’s version, none of them seriously damaging the work’s overall impact.
The Irish-born Mark Anthony Noonan, blonde, boyish and slight of stature, is ultimately convincing as Edward, although he lacks the maturity and the angry, bitter cynicism which Stephen Rae brought to the role. Noonan fills the part with an easy, natural charm and a kind of relentlessly positive optimism, which may or may not be precisely what McGuinness had in mind when he created the character.
As cast and directed by Heslin, the greatest difference lies in and around the part of Michael, here played by John Brant. McCowan’s Michael was prissy, perhaps excessively so, making it difficult, if not entirely impossible, for the first production’s Adam and Edward to believe the story he tells of his wife’s death and his own subsequent retreat to his widowed mother’s home in Peterborough in rural Northamptonshuire.
In casting the sturdy John Brant as the British pedant, Heslin has made the portion of the play in which he plays a pivotal role both more credible and more sympathetic than it was in the original production and in subsequent stagings.
As the American doctor, Adam Vorrath provides a healthy Yankee will to survive and a steadfastly unquenchable spirit. McGuinness’s eagerness to keep the play active and engrossing is everywhere in evidence, and, for the most part, successful, as he has his captives reliving old movies by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Attenborough, and recreating sporting moments, including the l977 Wimbledon women’s singles match in which Britain’s Virginia Wade decisively defeated her Dutch opponent and became an enduring national heroine.
Once in a while, however, it must be admitted, his efforts to keep his fundamentally static play lively show signs of strain, with the trio’s efforts to entertain each other and keep depression at bay becoming slightly coy and even self-conscious.
Frank McGuinness has done more scholarly work, including his adaptations of Anton Chekhov, Bertold Brecht, Henrik Ibsen and Sophocles, and more ambitious plays, such as his World War I drama, “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme ,” but “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is, thus far, still the one that works the best in terms of audience response, a point made clear once again by George C. Heslin’s deft, graceful new staging down on Bond Street, a few blocks south of the Public Theater.
Written by: Frank McGuinness
Directed by: George C. Heslin
Starring: Mark Anthony Noonan, John Brant, Adam Vorrath
Where: The Gene Frankel Theater, 24
Bond St., NYC
When: Through June 30