Finding a way to common ground Theater review: Three men in a Beirut prison cell develop redeeming qualities in captivating drama at Vagabond Players.

January 18, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The dramatic possibilities could be limited in a play whose characters consist of three men chained to the floor of a window-less cell. When one turns out to be Irish, one English and one American, the situation begins to sound like a stale joke.

But due to the strength of its characterizations, Frank McGuinness' "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at the Vagabond Players, proves to be a moving drama after all.

Its parameters -- one set, three characters -- make it ideally suited to community theater. But to be effective, the play's small scale must be enhanced by well- wrought performances, and director Tony Gallahan has elicited those from his skilled cast.

The situation is this: Three men have been taken hostage in Beirut, though they don't know why, or by whom. And, except for their shared language -- a convenient device for dramatic purposes -- the men have nothing in common.

Adam, who was kidnapped first, is an American doctor. Portrayed by Chad Hoeppel with an almost sullen stalwartness, Adam is in the midst of his daily calisthenics when the play begins.

Determined to remain strong in body and mind, he is also the only one of the three to avail himself of the two books his captors have placed in the cell -- the Bible and the Koran. Only later, when Adam becomes convinced he has been singled out for execution, does his resolve begin to waver -- a scene Hoeppel handles with aplomb.

At the start of the play, Adam has been sharing the cell for two months with Edward, an Irish journalist played by Patrick Martyn with a thoroughly credible mixture of cheerfulness and cynicism.

In their two months together, these two have developed a variety of coping mechanisms.

They dictate imaginary letters home, narrate imaginary movies and re-live great sporting events. Then their modus operandi is disturbed by the arrival of the third hostage -- a timid, widowed English professor named Michael, who moved to Beirut when he lost his job at a British university.

Mark E. Campion plays Michael as an effete weakling. Even the awkward way Campion stands -- with his stomach extended and his arms hanging like a penguin's useless wings -- suggests Michael was the kind of boy who was taunted in school. And he is soon subjected to more of the same from Irish Edward.

There's truth, of course, to the cliche that two's company and three's a crowd, and it's not just the rivalry between Michael and Edward that creates sparks. But in the end, the shared suffering of the three redeems and ennobles them all, turning even cowardly Michael into a heroic survivor.

At one point, Edward recalls an Irish woman he interviewed when he was a cub reporter in his native land. The woman summed up the Irish "troubles" in a word: "Ridiculous."

That word, the hostages realize, applies to their situation as well -- a situation that could be described as theater of the absurd, except that it's all too real.

On stage

What: 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 4

Tickets: $9 and $10

Call: (410) 563-9135

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