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Three Men in a Cell 

... to say nothing of the firing squad

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
Jerome K. Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat deals with three idle Englishmen floating down the Thames with a dog. They have amusing adventures and emit witticisms that made their author famous enough in his day (the late 19th century) to bring about Oscar Wilde's public disgrace.

Frank McGuinness' play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me deals with three men chained to the floor of a Lebanese jail. An Englishman, an Irishman, and an American, with nothing to do but wait for death, amuse themselves by composing imaginary letters or miming fantasies of cocktails and fine food. Their witticisms are nasty and aimed at each other, and instead of ending in a clever comedic luncheon in London the play ends with one of its characters executed.

McGuinness also wrote, among other plays, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which Viaduct Theater produced here a couple of years ago. He lectures in English at St. Patrick's College in Maynooth, Ireland. As far as I know he's never done time in Lebanon, no more than he's fought in the First World War; but then Someone Who'll Watch Over Me isn't about Middle Eastern politics. His characters never see their captors. They've been grabbed at random from the streets of Beirut. That they're in Beirut is superfluous; they could just as easily sit in a Siberian gulag -- or a Beckett play.

So the show consists, literally, of two-plus hours of men in a cell. First we see Adam, the American doctor, and Edward, the Irish journalist. Adam keeps himself fit with push-ups, Edward would rather jeer and complain. Soon a linguist named Michael gets dumped unconscious next to them. Michael is a great, soft, earnest lunk of an Englishman who provides fresh jeering material for Edward. "You're a miserable git, aren't you?" Edward says, about 10 minutes into their acquaintance, and when Michael in passing calls Irish speech a "dialect," Edward erupts. "We've taken [English] from you," he shouts. "We've made it our own. An' we've bettered ya at it!"

Edward is a lively, savage presence who fuels the play with his bitter, scathing brogue. Clive Worsley plays him brilliantly. I know Worsley from his performance last year as the mild, tippling American broadcaster in Mr. Happiness; the bright flash of his adopted accent here works a nice contrast. In shackles, with scrawny legs exposed, wearing a shaggy beard, he looks and acts like a desperate, hunted animal. At the show's climax he drops straight into a pit of madness and grief (against Michael's civilized protests), and wrenches a strange catharsis from a script that's mostly talk.

Kevin Karrick, as Michael, works against his own obvious Irishness to create a pompous but sympathetic Brit who hankers for homemade pear flan. He's stern, judicious, polite, and reserved about his own feelings. "Don't be afraid of pain," he remembers his father telling him. "Don't be afraid of controlling it." Karrick rises to brilliance in a speech about Michael's wife, who died in a car crash; the spectacle of him wrestling with grief is wrenching. Lying at the heart of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is a study in contrast between Irish and English attitudes toward pain, and although McGuinness breathes into his English character a respectful and believable life, he still comes down for the home team. "Bein' Irish helped me," says Edward, near the end.

The flawed part of this production is Richard Silberg's performance as the American, Adam. He should be a commanding presence in the cell, but Silberg's acting lacks authority. He lets no emotion play through his voice. Director Patrick Dooley has probably told him to be stoic next to the gregarious Irishman, but the result isn't a tough character so much as a line-reading one. (Maybe he has improved in recent appearances; I saw the show in preview.) Still, his performance perks up when Adam slides toward craziness. "I want a pair of jockey shorts," he tells his cellmates in a cracked deadpan. "I want my country's greatest contribution to the world -- a white, clean pair of jockey shorts." [Pause.] "I wanna kill an Arab."

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me can't help dragging now and then; even the funny scenes begin to feel redundant and drawn-out. But tedium must be the main feeling of being in jail. McGuinness has written an Irish fugue for three voices, resonant but slow, that appreciates but finally lacerates English (and American) restraint. I doubt he had Jerome K. Jerome in mind, but the play works as a quiet rebuke to anyone who would shoot down an Irishman for flaming too bright.


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