Category: Archive


February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A prime example just now in Frank McGuinness? ?Someone Who?ll Watch Over Me,? which is rapidly becoming one of the most frequently produced modern Irish plays.
McGuinness? gripping three-character play is laced through with nimble comedic injections, frequently of the somber, mournful variety, but there?s no evading the point that the Dublin-based playwright is dealing with three innocent men who have been taken prisoner and subjected to humiliating, long-term captivity to which there may or may not be an end.
Although McGuinness locates his play in ?an abandoned building in Beirut, Lebanon,? and specifies the time as ?mid-1980s,? it?s clear that he?s referencing the Iranian hostage crisis which, among other things, blighted Jimmie Carter?s presidency.
Much as the playwright has peopled his play with an American, an Englishman, and an Irishman, making it seem like a set-up for a lifeboat joke, and despite the rich vein of humor he?s mining, his intentions are fundamentally serious. And disturbing to boot.
The sordid news from Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq which has filled media reports for the last few months has made a distinct impact on ?Someone Who?ll Watch Over Me? and the manner in which the play is received by the audience.
The American, a doctor, the Briton, a teacher, and the Irishman, a reporter, are not at least initially, subjected to the torture and humiliation of which Americans, and the rest have heard and read so much.
McGuinness? characters have been picked up and jailed seemingly at random. Michael Watters, the educator, had relocated to Beirut and accepted a teaching job when his regular post, as an instructor of Olde English and Middle English in a British university, was eliminated.
He has been casually nabbed in a marketplace while in the process of purchasing the fruit required to make the pear flan he intended to serve at a dinner party he was planning.
Adam Canning, the doctor, and Edward Sheridan, the journalist, have been confined for reasons which, while not specified in detail, appear to be as superficial as those which have landed the late-arriving schoolmaster in their midst.
The men are shackled to the bleak room?s walls by heavy chains, and while their captors are never seen, they are heard from time to time beating on the walls in response to what they apparently consider inappropriate laughter and activity on the part of their captives.
McGuinness? characters play verbal games and invent diversions with which to make time pass and, more significantly, to keep each other from going insane. They argue about movies they?ve liked and disliked, including Richard Attenborough?s ?Gandhi,? a relatively recent film at the time in which the play?s action takes place. The men seem to agree that ?Gandhi? is longer than absolutely necessary.
They describe their lives, giving details which their colleagues, particularly with regard to Watters? description of his family life, don ?t necessarily believe.
They scrap a bit, mock each other?s attitudes, but, in the main, they are unilaterally and mutually supportive.
Frank McGuinness, a professor at Dublin?s Trinity University as well as a prolific writer, is among the most erudite of playwrights currently at work in the English-speaking theater.
?Someone Who?ll Watch Over Me? reflects his scholarship from start to finish, ranging from Watters? love of classic literature to Canning?s and Sheridan?s familiarity with what might be termed pop culture.
The teacher recreates moments from 1977?s Women?s Finals at Wimbledon, when the British Virginia Wade scored a surprise victory over her Dutch opponent, and was greeted and praised by the English Queen, who, in Watters? view, didn?t all that much care for the game of tennis, or even know very much about it.
McGuinness? play, by far his most successful effort to date, is somewhat schematic, and, at times, the effort required to keep it afloat is evident and slightly distressing. The men conjure up imaginary rounds of their favorite cocktails, and down them enthusiastically.
?Someone who?ll Watch Over Me? acquires its familiar title from Ella Fitzgerald?s recording of the Gershwin classic, selected by one of the men as a record he would take with him if he were banished to a desert island, a reflection of a popular British radio show of the era.
The play, well-crafted and always compelling, particularly when it?s as faithfully rendered as it is in its new incarnation at the Abingdon Theater Center, has taken on a new and poignant layer of remorse, viewed in the light of recent and current revelations.
The production, running on West 36th Street through June 12, is the first offering from a new organization, the Sounding Theatre Company, with Frank Mariglia acting as producing artistic director.
The production?s director, Orlando Pabotoy, has approached the play with intelligence and sensitivity, pacing it actively, and, whenever possible, stressing the material?s credibility.
Any production of McGuinness play stands or falls in direct relation to the aptness of its casting and the calibration of the performances turned in by he actors selected to embod6y the luckless but generally plucky men the playwright had created.
Mariglia and Pabotoy have been unusually wise, and probably fortunate, as well, in choosing their actors. As the thorny Irish newspaperman, a role created by Stephen Rea, the Irish-born Lawrence Lowry is, by turned, as annoying and as compassionate as McGuinness intended. In addition, he bears a distinct physical resemblance to the playwright.
Damian Ruzzerio, playing the panicky and somewhat mysterious Englishman, is totally credible and wholly comfortable with both Michael Watters? Britishness, and the store of knowledge he brings to the party. The role was originally played by Alec McCowen.
As Canning, a role sometimes played by a black actor, as was the case when James McDaniel did it in the Broadway production, Rob Cameron is both convincing and moving, even in the difficult passage in which the doctor experiences a sort of waking nightmare, conjuring up memories of his difficult childhood, and revealing the insecurities underlying his superficially confident nature.
The bottom line is that, after some 13 years McGuinness? intelligent, heartfelt play still works.

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