Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
July 15, 2010
It almost sounds like the opening to a very sick joke: An Irishman, an American, and an Englishman are kidnapped and imprisoned by Muslim extremists in Lebanon. Chained by their legs to a wall, they are given food and water (along with regular beatings) but no explanation as to where they are, why they were taken, or when (and if) they might be released. Trapped in this existential hell, they rely on imagination and humor to protect their sanity and rationality from their captors and even from each other.
That this is a beautiful script is not a point for debate. This play is a modern classic. Frank McGuinness's deft wordplay is a celebration of a long tradition in Irish theatre—that there is nothing more interesting than watching three men in a room talking. Yeats and Synge did it, Beckett crystallized and perfected it, and contemporaries (McPherson, McGuinness) have tweaked and toyed with locale and topic to the delight of modern audiences. It also challenges them. Beautiful as it is, this is also a very hard play to stage: there can sometimes be few things more boring than three men in a room talking. The danger in staging Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is akin to a house of cards—if one element is flimsy the whole thing is coming down.
The house of cards does not collapse in The Collective's production, though it is teetering quite a bit. The play depends on a baseline level of tension throughout the piece that informs everything else. These men are prisoners, regularly abused, never alone, and in constant fear for their lives. The drama, the humor, everything in the play stems from that, and maintaining that tension is a heavy task for any company to attempt.
From what I can gather this is Robert Z. Grant's directorial debut (his bio is full of acting credits; if this is incorrect, my apologies) and he appears to have bitten off a bit more than he can chew. That tension so necessary for the play comes and goes in this production, making it difficult to fully invest in the plight of the characters. There is a superfluous opening montage of all three men being kidnapped (tacked on by Grant, I assume) that lessens the emotional blow of the opening scene: a lone man in a cell crying and singing the titular song, reaching out in the darkness for help. The show never fully recovers from that montage and the uneven cast never fully establishes that necessary tension.
This play, more so than others, lives or dies by its cast. If you are asking an audience to spend the better part of three hours in a cell with three men, then as a director you had better be certain that the actors are up to the task. These men are all fine actors, but at times they seemed to be in different plays As Adam, the American doctor, Brian Leider is initially a bit wooden. Early on he seems to be more reciting his lines than anything else; if this is a character choice than I question its efficacy. As the empathetic core to the show, Leider never really grabbed me until right before his exit, when he delivers a moving speech in the form of an open letter to his family. Mike Houston plays Michael, the English lecturer, and while he certainly has the necessary emotion for the show, his British accent was so distracting that it kept taking me out of the action of the play. This leads us to Kevin Kane as Edward, the Irish journalist. Kane is the reason to come see this show, and also the reason why the shortcomings of his fellow actors' performances are so glaringly apparent. His performance constantly drives the show forward and draws the humor and heartbreak out of that necessary tension I keep banging on about. If all three performers start working at his level than this will become one hell of a show.
The scenic elements are mixed as well. Grant, as well as directing, designed the set which looks more like a construction site than a cell. Alex Fabozzi's lighting goes a long way to establishing location and atmosphere, though I question the decision (be it his or Grant's) to change the lighting during those moments when the characters are trying to escape the cell with their imaginations. I found it distracting and felt it would have been more effective to leave the lights as they were and rely on the performances to take us outside the prison walls. Krista Amigone's costumes are effective in conveying a prison atmosphere, and I appreciated her choice of keeping the actors barefooted as a reminder of how helpless they were.
It's probably pretty hard to tell from this review, but I did like this production. It has a lot of heart and the hard work that the company has put into the show is apparent on stage. My issue is that the overall product is unbalanced. I saw this show in its opening night and I would not be surprised to see a more complete and effective production later in its run.