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Stage : The Actors in 'Someone' Add Heft

March 21, 1994|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Fifty years after Sartre sentenced three characters to a room with no exit in "Huis Clos" for a look at the mutual hell they create, Frank McGuinness has turned Sartre's pessimism on its head.

In "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," the Irish playwright's 1992 hostage drama on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory, three Westerners who have been kidnaped off the streets of Beirut find salvation in each other.

They survive for months--indeed, they almost thrive--on a rich collective stew of fantasies cooked up with all sorts of theatrical flourishes to suppress their boredom and fear. "We are in this together," one hostage warns the others. "Don't forget that. If I go under, so do you."

The possibility of madness frightens them even more than their offstage Arab captors. To retain their sanity they resort to games of memory and imagination, as though by freeing their minds they can release their bodies from incarceration.

But, despite the play's ominous trappings, McGuinness has written an oddly light piece of entertainment. It tries to amuse us by force of personality and style rather than engaging us with philosophical ideas or political agendas.

The drama isn't exactly fluff and neither is this California premiere, which strives for impact with an epic look of time-worn marble and bombed-out metal. The real weight of the production, though, comes from the performances.

Each of the captives--a crude Irish journalist (Richard Doyle), a self-contained American doctor (Gregory Wallace) and a genteel British professor (Jim Norton)--keeps up a steady patter to escape reality. At times they have more activities going than a cruise ship.

They write mock letters, shoot make-believe movies, pretend to throw cocktail parties. They replay horse races and tennis matches, take imaginary drives in the country and sing favorite songs, including the famous Gershwin tune "Someone to Watch Over Me," which Ella Fitzgerald also is heard singing between scenes.

Inevitably, of course, the trio is brought back to oppressive confinement. Shackled to the floor by an ankle chain, each hostage wears a dirty T-shirt and shorts and has a worn blanket, a sleeping pallet and a bottle of water. They don't know whether its day or night. They hear no news of the outside world.

Doyle plays the Irishman with a rugged intensity. He is alternately angry and comforting, resigned and ironic. Recalling his days as a cub reporter, he tells of the Derry woman who was asked about Ireland's troubles. "Son," she says, "this whole situation can be summed up in two words: Ridiculous! Ridiculous!" Naturally, the refrain applies to them.

But it is Norton's delicately shaded portrait of a refined Englishman that finesses the show. His role travels furthest, calling for a gradual transformation from fragility to strength in marked contrast to the blunter demands of the two other roles.

As the American, Wallace has to deal with a somewhat opaque part that calls for a fairly even temperament and lots of pushups. Nothing as written in the character makes us feel deeply for him. Also, South Coast's colorblind casting of the role--Wallace is black--leaves some issues undefined.

For example, both the Irishman and Englishman delve at length into their backgrounds, providing the play with its major source of conflict. But the American never once addresses the matter of his race or heritage. Nor do the other two.

The lack of commentary is noticeable, particularly in an environment where nobody is bashful about revealing their opinions on such subjects. It's also inexplicable, until you realize McGuinness must have had a white American in mind when he wrote the play.

What is most unexpected about this production, unlike the Broadway version, is the absence of an imminent threat from the kidnapers. For all the atmospheric effects, we never sense any palpable tension that the guards might burst in on the hostages at any moment and beat or kill them.

Even in the second act, after a hostage has been executed, we don't really feel it. We're too busy being entertained. It leaves the play's final gesture--a defiant rattling of chains--seeming a bit hollow.

* "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends April 17. $23-$33. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Gregory Wallace: Adam Richard Doyle: Edward Jim Norton: Michael

A South Coast Repertory production of a play by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Susana Tubert. Scenic and costume designer Victoria Petrovich. Lighting designer Tom Ruzika. Sound designer Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora. Stage manager Randall K. Lum.

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