Sentimental but only occasionally cloying, “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is the first serious work to test the Broadway waters this season. Even with fine acting and flawless staging by Robin LeFevre, this show about three hostages in a squalid Beirut basement won’t have an easy time finding the audience it deserves.
Both the subject and the setting of Frank McGuinness’ play are grim. But by concentrating on the inner resourcefulness and ultimately the quiet bravery of these three men, he’s written something quite moving. “Someone” isn’t art but it’s more than a diversion, and it’s presented with conviction, not to mention a great deal of humor.
The senior member of the group, incarcerated for four months at the play’s outset, is Adam (James McDaniel), an African-American doctor who works off his loneliness and fear through a regimen of constant exercise and reading of the Bible and the Koran, which have been supplied by his captors.
He’s soon joined by Edward (Stephen Rea), an edgy Irish journalist who’s vocal about his boredom (particularly whenever Adam begins working out).
A bit later, the somewhat prim English academic Michael (Alec McCowen) is added to the mix. Each man is shackled by one leg to a wall and has only a rudimentary mat to sleep on.
Naturally, they draw each other out, filling the time telling stories, spinning out fantasies that are tame compared to those in that other hostage tale, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and–as the Gershwin-derived title implies–looking out for one another.
Not much actually happens in this character study, but each character has a good deal of appeal. Though each of McGuiness’s creations has his stereotypical traits, only Adam seems an oddly wishful amalgam. Nevertheless, it’s worth the price of admission to hear McDaniel sing “Amazing Grace” as the first act curtain falls, and to observe McCowen’s face –immutable in a kind of noble serenity — as the rendition takes flight.
In the play’s funniest set piece, Edward and Michael re-enact Virginia Wade’s 1977 Wimbledon triumph over Betty Stove; though it may be predictable that Rea and McCowen hit their comic stride impersonating women (McCowen as Wade, Rea as the Queen), it’s no less funny, or touching.
Robin Don’s setting is appropriately dingy and sparse, and Natasha Katz’s sensitive lighting designs have become among the most reliable in her profession. One could have done with many fewer musical quotations from Ella Fitzgerald’s cover of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” but that’s the only misstep in LeFevre’s confident, understated staging.
Had it been produced under the aegis of the Broadway Alliance, “Someone” surely would have given credibility to that plan to bring down Broadway production and ticket prices, and it would probably have ensured a wider audience for the show. As it is, the play will undoubtedly struggle through the holiday weeks, dependent on heavy discounting. What this reflects is the reluctance of major producers to really support the Alliance.