Hostage Play Misses Chance To Explore Dramatic Options

SOMEONE WHO'LL WATCH OVER ME. Drama by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Robin Lefevre. At Broadway's Booth Theatre.

WHEN the curtain rises and you see two men shackled against the bare wall of a nondescript cell, you prepare yourself for a certain type of evening. That Frank McGuinness's play "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," defies your expectations is greatly to its credit. It is surprisingly lively and funny. But it is also frustratingly opaque.

The play, an enormous success in London, has been transferred with its original cast intact. Set in a "basement somewhere in the Middle East," it presents us with three men who are being held as prisoners: Adam (James McDaniel), a black American doctor, Edward (Stephen Rea), an Irish journalist, and Michael (Alec McCowen), a British college professor. Although the three characters meet quite different fates, nothing much happens in the way of a plot. The play is rather a character study that examines how

the men react to their plight and to each other.

Enjoyable as these characters are, they rarely rise above the level of stereotype. Adam is straightforward and athletic; Edward is ironic and poetic, seeming to be almost drunk although he obviously hasn't been able to indulge; Michael is repressed, striving mightily to maintain his dignity and most concerned about his elderly mother in England. There is much comic banter among the men; McGuinness writes witty dialogue and his three actors are so skillful that we are usually entertained. But we are rarel y enlightened. The three characters are caught in a life-threatening situation, but the writing concentrates on their efforts to keep themselves amused. These include Adam's all-out rendition of "Amazing Grace," Edward's version of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and Edward and Michael's reenactment of a women's tennis match at Wimbledon, complete with impressions of Virgina Wade and the Queen.

The men's plight works powerfully on general terms, so we never really need to know who is holding them prisoner or why, but the playwright is too reticent about exploring the numerous dramatic possibilities of the situation. Whenever the writing threatens to get interesting, as when Michael inquires as to whether Edward was sexually interested in Adam, McGuinness pulls back.

That we feel so close to these characters anyway is a testament to the skills of the actors. McDaniel made his talent known through his performance in "Six Degrees of Separation," and McCowen has had a long and distinguished career. It is Stephen Rea who is the revelation. The actor, who is also sensational in the current film "The Crying Game," is always breezily amusing while never letting us forget the pain and poignance inside his character.

Robin Lefevre's direction lets the pace go slack too often, to the point where we begin to feel that we, too, will never emerge from that cell. Nonetheless, `Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' is a worthy and earnest effort, the first serious drama of the Broadway season.

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