SOMEONE WHO'LL WATCH OVER ME
Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is the theatrical equivalent of a loaf of multigrain bread. It's simple, solid, good for you, but vaguely unsatisfying. It's difficult to find fault with and yet lacks flavor. It is a technically flawless piece of stagecraft, but except for a few sequences does not possess the sense of artistry that can make theatergoing a magical experience. It's one of those plays that make you feel guilty for not liking it more.
Two political prisoners, a kindly, soft-spoken African American doctor and a brash, swaggering Irish journalist, are joined by a third prisoner, a prissy English university professor, in their bleak Beirut cell. Chained to the walls of the prison, the three try to stave off their feelings of fear, misery, and helplessness by exploring the universal human bonds between them. As their unseen Lebanese wardens keep watch through the metal grating of the prison door, the men comfort each other, sing, tell stories, and engage in wonderfully loopy role-playing games that pass the time and allow them to maintain their courage and their dignity. In the second act, after the American has departed either to freedom or to his death, the Irishman and the Englishman delve further into the realm of the imagination--pantomiming sports matches and escapes via a flying car--to avoid succumbing to insanity or absolute desperation.
McGuinness's play is an existential parable with strong echoes of Beckett and Sartre that concentrates on the need for human companionship and diversion. The prisoners have no idea how or why they have gotten where they are. They do not know what will happen to them once they get outside the prison, but they are dreadfully fearful of it. They are happiest when they are pretending to be elsewhere, pouring each other imaginary drinks, watching imaginary movies, and driving imaginary cars.
The play's title, taken from the Gershwin song, is the philosophical dilemma at the heart of the play. The helpless men hope for a god who will watch over them and protect them, but the only individual they can see watching over them is a guard whose presence implies impending doom. All that's left is to pass the time as enjoyably as possible before facing what's outside.
This sort of philosophical rant is none too original for anyone who's read No Exit or Men Without Shadows or Waiting for You Know Who. What keeps McGuinness's drama fresh is the unpredictability of his fantasy sequences and the strength of some of his characters. When the shackled Englishman and the Irishman leap about the stage reenacting a famous Wimbledon ladies' tennis championship or imitating rabbits, the sense of playfulness is a joy to watch. Both of these characters are incredibly complex and believable, exhibiting a full range of emotions from giddy and gleeful denial to jittery, weak-kneed fear to dutiful sangfroid. McGuinness is less successful with the two-dimensional, saintly African American doctor who is as well mannered as he is well hung, possessing "a dick that could choke a donkey."
Much was made in the New York press during the play's 1992 Broadway run of the success Frank McGuinness had in making effective drama out of a situation in which every character is chained to a wall. But the contrived setup actually makes McGuinness's job a hell of a lot easier. The revelations, the bonding, the sense of tension, compassion, and understanding--all of which might have seemed hokey in other circumstances--are now perfectly plausible. The cynics in the audience might even argue that chaining men to walls and depriving them of food is the only way to get them to communicate honestly. The confinement of movement helps to liberate the dialogue.
Northlight Theatre's production under the direction of Mike Nussbaum, who also plays the role of the Englishman Michael, wrings every last nuance out of McGuinness's script. B.J. Jones, as the Irishman Edward, is so charismatic that he almost steals the show from Nussbaum's hilarious and pathetic British prof. Aaron Freeman, in a rare dramatic role as the doctor, Adam, gives a surprisingly moving performance that is as convincing as the underwritten role allows him to be.
As usual, Northlight's production values are top-notch, but the ultimate effect leaves the audience feeling much the same way McGuinness's characters feel about each other. At first there is animosity toward these strangers and frustration with what Edward calls "the boredom, the boredom, the bloody boredom." As the play goes on, you begin to warm to these characters, to understand, appreciate, and sympathize with them. Given the choice, however, you might prefer to flee.