by Michael Bowen & r & In the first act of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me (though Oct. 1 at Interplayers), we share squalid circumstances for more than an hour with three hoping-not-to-be-hopeless souls trapped as political prisoners. Then, just before we head into the comfort of cookies at intermission, playwright Frank McGuinness and director Nike Imoru's cast create a magic moment. One of the hostages recounts a tale from folklore; another sings a church hymn. All three men are isolated in pools of light; we realize, with a start, that both the story and the song are about death and rebirth. And then the lights snap off.
Similarly, there's a moment near the play's conclusion, a show of solidarity between prisoners, that redeploys a historical anecdote so that it ricochets with compassion among the prisoners and then shoots out into the audience -- a symbol of what we might achieve, if only.
These two powerful episodes propel McGuinness' script into near-universal relevance. Like hostages trapped in a strange room, many of us face injustice, would prefer different circumstances, would just like to be with our loved ones. We're prisoners of a sort, too.
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is stark and unforgiving: an American physician, an Irish journalist and a British professor, stuck in a room somewhere in the Middle East, each chained by the ankle, each fairly sure he may never get away alive from their unseen captors. With no costumes, props or set to speak of, it's visually bleak.
And so Someone comes down entirely to dialogue and themes and acting -- there's nothing else for the audience to fasten upon. Unfortunately, before we get to those gripping moments at the end of each act, some unconvincing tirades get the actors off to a rocky start.
Just in the first scene, Michael Maher (as Edward, the Irish journalist) paces and complains about boredom without letting enough downtime transpire to convince us that he's really bored; in both his voice and his body language, Charles Gift (as Adam, the American doctor) displays mere anger instead of the kind despair that would make you think he's capable of anything. As a result, their characters' face-off (Irish vs. American, despair vs. hope) comes off as unconvincing. Like dogs chained just out of each other's reach, they can't really hit each other anyway. But we need to feel that they just might break out of those chains and hurt someone bad, right now. And we don't.
Of the three cast members, the best portrayal is by Bill Caisley as a professor of medieval literature and proud son of England. His ineffectual gestures convey the prissy weakness of a man unsuited to a life without scones and a nice cup of tea, let alone the miseries of a hostage. Caisley's Michael makes the loss of his daily routine in Beirut seem like the loss of everything that gives life value.
Caisley shows us the effort it takes a man like Michael to break free of emotional constipation -- and the mixed rewards of making that breakthrough. Maher, while he paces aimlessly during some monologues, nevertheless has a knack for conveying compassion. He's marvelous at showing the chinks in his crusty Irishman's sarcastic hide, blurting out empathy when, just moments before, he'd been an unfeeling jerk.
As you might expect from a play that has a jokey-sounding setup (An Englishman, an Irishman and a Yank are chained in a room ...), McGuinness is keen on exploring nationalistic stereotypes. Some rather predictable English-vs.-Irish animosity reflects the petty differences that divide us into tribes holding grudges we can never know the basis of. Squabbling Muslims? Bickering Christians, too.
And it's here that McGuinness' play proves its relevance, even a dozen years past its premiere and well into our post-9/11 climate. The characters themselves complain about the injustice -- how could Hezbollah do this to us, to innocent men in the '80s? But the bigger-impact question, a dozen years into someone's lifespan, is this: Will an American audience today, in the English/Irish/Yankee faces in Beirut, see reflections of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds unjustly accused and now holed up and forgotten in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?
McGuinness' play circles back with relevance on our lives in another way, too. The three hostages in the play, it becomes clear, use their imaginations, their sense of humor, to survive brutal circumstances. It's existential: I make a joke, therefore I can endure. Someone Who'll Watch Over Me will keep getting produced because, as Ella Fitzgerald's voice keeps reminding us during the scene breaks, we all simply hope that someone out there -- God, loved ones, the sheer quality of human resilience -- is watching over me, over you, over all of us.