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Woodlawn theater troupe debuts with acclaimed McGuinness hostage drama

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

SOMEONE WHO’LL WATCH OVER ME, by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Nina Gabriele-Cuva. Starring Dominic Dillon, R.J. D’Amato, Paul Naclerio. Cool Collective Theatre Co. At the Woodlawn Presbyterian Church, 240th Street and Martha Avenue, Yonkers. Through April 25.

In the nearly 10 years since late 1992, when it was initially seen, first in London and then in New York, Frank McGuinness’s “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” has become just about the most frequently revived modern Irish play of our time.

And why not? The play, suggested in part by the story of Irish journalist Brian Keenan, a victim of political abduction, is set in what the playwright specifies as “a cell” in a time he calls “now.” It requires just three performers, all of them male and all of them chained to whatever semblance of a wall the set designer is able to provide.

In actuality, McGuinness’s tale of three strangers in rigid captivity in Beirut, Lebanon, is a vastly tougher nut to crack, at least cleanly, than at first appears to be the case.

The shackled trio, an Irish journalist, a British academic, and an American army psychiatrist, one of whom vanishes during the work’s single intermission, fluctuate from stages of self-protective isolation and hostility to increasingly poignant forms of mutual interdependence, revealing their inmost fears, degree by degree.

“Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is back again, this time in a four-week, 16-performance run, the first production of a new and energetic Bronx-based group called The Cool Collective Theatre Company.

The team, headed by artistic director Dominic Dillon, who appears in the new production as Edward, the Irish newsman originally played in London and New York by Stephen Rea, is performing in the basement of the Woodlawn Presbyterian Church at 240th Street and Martha Avenue, on the border of Yonkers and the Bronx.

The space was the primary home of the now defunct Macalla Theatre Company, the last Irish-oriented stage group to put down roots in the Bronx.

The Cool Collective, particularly considering the underlying riskiness and subtlety of McGuinness’s writing, has done a highly commendable job of bringing out the inherent richness of “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” in a staging best-described as “minimalist.”

Adam, the Yank doctor, and especially Michael, the unmoored-seeming Englishman, engage with the embittered Edward in a complicated series of games, role-playing, remembering and fantasizing by turns, all in an improvised, desperate attempt to stave off the onrushing wave of terror and defeatism that at all times threatens to engulf them.

They “participate” in their own homespun version of the old British radio show “Desert Island Discs,” selecting the favored records each of them would carry with him into isolation.

Edward and Michael “replay” the celebrated women’s tennis finals from Wimbledon in 1977, and each of the three, by turns, uncovers secret, protected aspects of their own private lives.

Michael, who came to Beirut as a refugee when his British-based career as a teacher of Middle English faltered, presents himself as a widower, but his cellmates, especially Edward, suspects he may be covering up his actual homosexuality.

Edward’s brittle antagonism is, predictably enough, extremely fragile, eventually crumbling to reveal a man of feeling, as frightened, in his heart, as the pair with whom he finds himself incarcerated.

Reality, of course, has a way of “informing” literature, and “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” plays somewhat differently in light of increased hostilities in the Middle East than might be the case if things in that region were more placid than they are.

On another level, when the British professor, in the midst of a personal recollection, refers to himself as having been “as drunk as the queen mother,” the line resonates in a way it would not have done even a few weeks ago.

Obviously and necessarily done on a minuscule budget, the Cool Collective’s production of McGuinness’s densely enjoyable play, as neatly directed by Nina Gabriele-Cuva, tells the playwright’s story clearly and intelligently, keeping a tidy balance between the work’s mournful subtext and the frolicsome, often raucous, humor that lightens so many of its scenes.

Dillon, the company’s founder/producer, Tipperary-born, Cork-raised and an experienced Irish theater veteran before his arrival in America five years ago, brings a penetrating edginess to the role of the despairing Irish correspondent, Edward, while R.J. D’Amato, as the frightened Englishman, Michael, does an especially admirable job of filling in the blanks and unanswered questions of which his character is compounded.

As the American psychiatrist, Adam, a part sometimes played by a black actor, Paul Naclerio is both adroit and sympathetic in his avid attempts to stay in shape and put a good face on ugly events.

Sound design is by Richard Cuva, while the modest but credible dungeon setting is by Richard P. Cicalo.

The Cool Collective plans to mount three shows a year, with the second, Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” scheduled for fall of this year. With any luck at all, after a good, solid start with “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” it seems likely that the new group will make a strong bid toward filling the void created when Macalla stopped producing Irish plays in the Bronx.

Suitably enough, the Cool Collective production of “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is dedicated to the memory of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, and to his wife, Mariane, and the couple’s unborn child.

As it happens, another of Frank McGuinness’s plays, the much-acclaimed “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” is receiving its first major American staging, a production of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, running at the city’s Wilbur Theatre through May 5. If all goes well in Massachusetts, the play may transfer to New York.

— Joseph Hurley

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