The Play's Still the Thing

Since Bloody Poetry deals with literary figures and their mental manipulations, British playwright Howard Brenton must be applauded for making this work, written in 1984, so accessible to a mass audience. Perhaps an even harder job awaited playwright Frank McGuinness when he decided to tackle the hostage crisis on stage and pen the brilliant piece, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. If Liz Dennis is to me the very best of actresses, Someone -- written in 1992, a hit in both England and Broadway -- represents the very highest order of plays. When a writer can take a bleak subject and inject into it humor, suspense, excitement, and truth, he has learned the skills of a master.

Set in a Beirut prison cell without windows, three men sit chained to the wall: an American psychiatrist named Adam; an Irish journalist named Edward; and a British professor named Michael. They do not understand why they were chosen to be hostages. They deeply regret accepting lucrative positions in this unstable environment. Most of all, they fear the future. Will they be killed? Or worse yet, will they never be freed? To pass what seems like endless time, they play and squabble like kittens -- inventing games, fighting, making up. In the end, no matter how far apart their value systems were at the start of their imprisonment, they become a family, devoted to watching over each other.

As the macho American determined to keep his head and body in top shape, Jeffrey Blair Cornell's portrayal never once rings false. In his egoism, you (the Yankee) see yourself and blush; in his fortitude, you feel proud. As the explosive, fun-loving Irishman, Neal Moran is simply superb in the showiest role. Another virile guy, Moran delivers all the expected bluster and blarney but also breaks down realistically. Unfortunately, John Gardiner -- in the trickiest part as the fey, pretentious Englishman (who in the end of course proves to be composed of the hardiest stuff) -- is too mannered an actor to truly make his character believable. His forced delivery renders the confrontational scenes between Moran and himself more impotent than they were originally written. However, Gardiner is not weak enough to destroy the play or the production, since Michael Hall's clever direction keeps everything moving along smoothly and quickly.

Both in Bloody Poetry and in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, the visions not seen but described -- of lovemaking, or torture -- add immeasurably to the dark and comedic moods of the pieces. In this form of storytelling, where characterization, dialogue, and evoked mental images tell a simple story that touches the heart and mind of an audience, live theater will always triumph.

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