Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
May 26, 2005
Sounding Theatre Company makes an excellent entrance to the off-off Broadway scene with their inaugural production, a very tight and well-produced revival of Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. Sounding Theatre Company’s goal is to “present revivals of important plays that are distinctly emblematic of their times.” McGuinness’s 1992 story of three men in the mid-1980s—an American, an Irishman, and a Englishman—who are held hostage together in a small cell in Lebanon is a fitting choice for their inaugural production.
This play would be a great piece of drama at any time—one that finds humanity, humor, and truth in a situation almost too terrible to imagine—but it is a particularly resonant experience now. It is an opportunity to be immersed in the perspective—and naivete—of these Westerners, who lived in Lebanon but viewed themselves as complete outsiders to the politics of the Middle East in the 1980s. These three men—the American a doctor studying the effects of war on the local children, the Irishman a journalist on assignment, and the Englishman a scholar who has just taken a job at a local university—have each not paid attention to the danger around them as they went about their work in Lebanon, perhaps thinking that their passports made them invulnerable, and didn’t realize that they were targets. It is an attitude that a Westerner abroad could never have today. At one point, the American even yells at his unseen captors, “I haven’t done anything to you!” While he is correct that he has not personally done anything to these men or their country, it is a shock to remember a time when a person in that situation might not realize that, as an American abroad, he is a representative of his country and will be held responsible by many for his country’s policies and actions. It would be hard to imagine an American hostage in 2005 thinking that the exclamation, “I haven’t done anything to you!” would be an effective appeal.
The action of the play takes place over several months and is spent entirely in the small single cell, perhaps no more than 10 feet by 10 feet. In the months that they spend together, these men come to rely on each other to remain sane. To pass the time they share stories, sing childhood songs, and even make up elaborate fantasies for each other. The isolation and lack of stimulus that is being forced on them feels like the stuff of a Beckett play: like Hamm and Clov of Endgame, they have so much time to pass and so little hope to hold onto, that their rituals and games become vital to their survival. Above all, they decide that whenever they want to break down and cry, they will instead laugh—as their captors are always listening and they never want them to think that they have been broken.
It is a great play, arguably a modern classic, and an ambitious undertaking for a brand-new company. Fortunately Sounding Theatre Company has succeeded in giving audiences the opportunity of seeing a solid and deserving revival. Director Orlando Pabotoy has created a taut production that makes no false steps and has no extra air—he has collaborated with the actors to find a believable journey for each of these men through a drama of unbelievably high stakes. Rob Cameron, Laurence Lowry, and Damian Buzzerio are excellent in their roles. Their work is focused, brave, and grounded in truth moment to moment. They do a remarkable job of taking the story into their bodies as well—from scene to scene they change in front of us, wasting away as they struggle to hold themselves together. This is especially clear in the case of Buzzerio as Michael, the Englishman: we see his first day in captivity early in the play and by the last scene he really looks like a different person. It is startling, as it should be.
Antje Ellermann’s set and Peter West’s lighting combine to make exactly the kind of hell the play calls for. Especially effective is the large set piece that hangs above the playing space, creating a cage while still letting us look in from the sides. The excellent, full-sounding design and music by Fabian Obispo keep up the tension between scenes and underscore with admirable restraint. Obispo also creates the presence of the captors—they are never seen, but throughout they make themselves known by sound effects such as doors that crash angrily when the prisoners have gotten too loud.
This production is a great opportunity to experience or re-experience this play, a drama that is perhaps even more compelling to audiences now than it was when first presented. This is also a chance to welcome and support a new theatre company that, judging by this production, is worth getting to know.