SOMEONE WHO’LL WATCH OVER ME, by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Len Duckman. Starring Mark Ellmore, Paul Taviani and Tristan Layton. A Theatre Asylum production at the Sande Shurin Theatre, 311 West 43rd St., NYC. Through May 26.
Seeing Theatre Asylum’s strong, well-acted production of Frank McGuinness’s durable three-hander, “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” on the evening of the day authorities in Pakistan revealed that they had tentatively identified a set of human remains found in a shed outside the city of Karachi as those of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl gave the prolific Irish dramatist’s most frequently produced work an especially bitter aftertaste.
Done in the New York area as recently as a month ago by the Bronx-based cool Collective Theatre Company, McGuinness’s adroit, skillfully crafted portrait of three innocent men taken hostage in Beirut seems to acquire renewed depth and resonance with every turn of events in the Middle East.
The playwright took a risk with what at least one critic has termed the “bomber crew” approach in putting his characters together, meaning one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B, and so forth, in the interests of diversity, but he got away with it.
McGuinness’s people are Edward, an edgy Irish journalist; Adam, an idealistic American doctor, and Michael, a vaguely mysterious English academic. They have been picked up, for random reasons, in the streets of the city, and chained to the wall of a crumbling facility being used as a prison.
They are given meager measures of food and water, but no information pertaining to their situation, let alone their fate.
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Director Len Duckman has been fortunate in his choice of actors, with the sturdy Mark Ellmore a moving and vulnerable Adam, the vulpine Paul Taviani a despairing, sorrowing Edward, and the innocent-faced Tristan Layton, a particularly eloquent Michael.
Since the entire three-man cast is tethered, except for one very brief, exceedingly poignant scene, to the production’s scenic elements, most of the “movement” in any staging of “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” has to be character-driven mental activity.
Duckman has lengthened his actors’ chains a little, both literally and figuratively, allowing them to stand and even move about a touch more than is the case in most productions of the play. McGuinness’s luckless three play games, just as men trapped in similar incarceration might logically do, in an effort to maintain their collective and individual sanity.
Edward imagines himself a participant in the BBC series “Desert Island Discography” and selects the music he’d take with him into circumstances of isolation.
Michael, who presents himself as a widower whose career as a professor of Middle English has run aground in Britain, motivating his removal to a not-so-desirable teaching job in Lebanon, recalls particularly memorable moments from an epic women’s match at Wimbledon, and reenacts them with the reluctant cooperation of the cynical Irishman.
Adam, a role played on Broadway and elsewhere by one or another African-American actor, recalls his difficult upbringing in a family which housed a fluctuating number of foster children, one of whom he himself might or might not be.
Together and separately, they recall movies they’ve liked, and, in one or two cases, loathed, books they’ve red, meals they’ve eaten, drinks they’ve enjoyed and so forth. When Edward asks his companions what they’d like to drink, Michael asks for sherry, much to the Irishman’s disgust.
The journalist whips up a batch of martinis, which all three prisoners “enjoy” to the fullest.
In the interests of maintaining his play’s forward motion, instead of slipping into the torpor that would surely accompany such a situation in real life, McGuinness has allowed his characters to become almost too playful, too imaginative, to the point where the doctor, the journalist and the teacher sometimes almost seem to be participants in an ongoing game of charades.
Director Duckman, however, has been adept at pulling his gifted actors back just before they tumble into the yawning of self-indulgence and showoffy performing.
Frank McGuinness has, to an extent, based “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” on the story of Brian Keenan, an Irish national kidnapped in 1986 by fundamentalist Shi’ite Muslim militiamen shortly after securing a job teaching at the American University in Beirut.
Keenan remained in captivity for over four years before he was released in 1990. Much of Keenan’s time as a prisoner was spent in the company of John McCarthy, a British journalist who had come to Beirut to make a documentary film about the hostage situation.
The Irishman, whose story is told in his book, “An Evil Cradling,” gave a press conference upon his release and described the experience of being held hostage as “a crucifying aloneness.”
Rather than becoming dated as the years pass, McGuinness’s “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” in Theatre Asylum’s fine new version, emerges as an even more valid work that it seemed earlier on.
— Joseph Hurley