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Theater Review: McGuinness’s tricky hostage drama returns

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

SOMEONE WHO’LL WATCH OVER ME, by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Mollie O’Mara. Starring Patrick Fitzgerald, Troy Myers and Timothy Doyle. A Jazz-In-Your-Face production, at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre, above Primary Stages, 345 West 45th St., NYC. Through May 3.

“Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” a moderate Broadway hit in the 1992-93 Broadway season, served mainly to introduce Stephen R’ to American audiences, while its adroitness as a stage work was somewhat overlooked.

A deceptively tricky play, reflecting in every scene the breadth of Frank McGuinness’s classically oriented erudition, the richness of his wit and the depth of his compassion, “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is on view again, in a graceful production by a group called Jazz-In-Your-Face, with Cucaracha Theatre Company regular Mollie O’Mara acting as director.

On its rather Beckettian surface, McGuinness’s play would appear to be simplicity itself, with three men, one of them an American doctor, another an Irish journalist and the third a luckless British academic, chained to the walls of a kind of holding tank in Beirut and facing an unknown future.

The play is, of course, McGuinness’s set of variations on the prolonged Lebanese hostage situation, which, among other things, poisoned the Carter presidency.

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The Dublin author’s roguish imagination and the lushness of his writing style keep “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” from being just another exercise, albeit an especially graceful one, in the “three-men-in-a-lifeboat” genre.

The American, Adam, the first of the trio to be incarcerated, has been joined by Edward, the Dubliner, before McGuinness begins the story, and the basically compatible pair are soon joined by the Briton, Michael, a failed university lecturer reduced to giving English lessons to Lebanese.

The bitterly ironic Irishman, the most overtly contentious and thorniest of the three, tries to make an enemy of the effete, mother-fixated pedant, while Adam, the self-doubting product of a series of childhood foster homes, endeavors to maintain a state of peace, as the journalist’s terrors move further and further into the murky waters of hostility.

The prisoners “film” the movies they see in their mind, relive events of the recent past, including the “ladies finals” of the 1977 tennis competition at Wimbledon, write unmailable letters home, play word games, and, when the fears they share threaten to overtake them completely, go at each other like fowl in a chicken coop.

Patrick Fitzgerald, fresh from his fine, understated performance in the Atlantic Theater’s “Mojo,” plays the Dubliner, Edward Sheridan, to the edgy hilt, never losing sight of the flashes of humor the role contains. He also has a nicely evocative moment in which he remembers the stops along the bus route from Howth to Bray.

As Adam Canning, the best-controlled, most humane and least self-involved of the three, a man whose private fears are most clearly exposed in his dreams and nightmares, Troy Myers displays a quiet strength and a sense of reasonableness and near-heroic decency that suit the role to perfection.

The part of Michael Waters, the fussy pedant nabbed on a Beirut street while shopping for the ingredients for a pear flan he intended to make for a dinner party, is arguably the play’s most complicated and most difficult element, since, if wrongly calibrated in performance, the character can easily prove as irritating to the audience as he initially does to the sarcastic Irishman.

Stuffy and terrified, the self-proclaimed “widower,” survivor of a deceased wife his cellmates, particularly Sheridan, suspect may never have actually existed, worries over his aged mother in Peterborough and fusses over his ruinous academic past almost as intently as he worries about the questionable future he shares with his fellow prisoners.

Timothy Doyle, working slowly and patiently, builds a character, frail, frightened and inherently nervous, an individual whose considerable strengths are revealed in a manner perhaps best described as apologetic.

What makes this particular “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” work as well as it does is the careful, almost fragile balancing act performed by all three actors working together in a sort of theatrical equivalent of close-order military drill.

With designer Jason Sturm’s network of slightly battered padded pipes, the setting could just as easily pass for the furnace room of an American high school, but it serves the play admirably, as does the sound plot provided by composer John Hoge.

Frank McGuinness, playwright, translator/adaptor and scholar, is also known here for his excellent version of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which scored on Broadway last season. The best of his other plays, “The Factory Girls,” and “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme” among them, have yet to be seen in New York.

Until that lapse is corrected, solid revivals of his most famous play, and this one is very admirable, will serve to keep his name alive in the public mind.

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