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Theater-goers should ignore ‘Someone to Watch over Me’

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Monday February 19, 2001

Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’ existential prison drama "Someone to Watch over Me" snagged a 1993 Tony Award nomination for its New York production — and the play’s Berkeley opening Saturday by Shotgun Players at Eighth Street Studio was eagerly anticipated by local theater-goers. 

Shotgun’s production, however, turns out to be a disappointing, lightweight affair — far from the company’s best work. 

Playwright McGuinness’ rambling, episodic work tells the story of three men of differing nationalities locked up in a bleak prison cell somewhere. Who they are, where they are, who has locked them up, and the reasons for their incarceration remain unclear for a while, as the story slowly unfolds. 

Bound by chains in a dirty, bleak, corner of the Eighth Street Studio, with their hands manacled and their body movements restricted to a few feet, American Adam (Richard J. Silberg), Irishman Edward (Clive Worsley) and Englishman Michael (Kevin Karrick), banter, argue and befriend each other. They try to keep their sanity in a deprived environment in which they don’t know if it’s night or day. 

This play is sort of a generic hostage and imprisonment story. The details of the politics are vague. 

After a while, it turns out that the men are incarcerated somewhere in Lebanon, innocent bystanders who were scooped off the street at gunpoint on different days, one at a time, as part as an on-going hostage-taking ploy. 

The prisoners talk about religion, politics, sex, poetry, music, families at home, suicide, football, cigarettes and beer. They learn that laughing annoys their captors. They sing for courage. 

To pass the time, the three occasionally play theater games, acting out imaginary scenarios like serving each other elaborate non-existent cocktails, or replaying a famous Wimbledon tennis match. 

Though playwright McGuiness has come up with a good idea for a play, its execution doesn’t live up to the concept. He has written a wordy, drifting, story that has almost no story evolution.  

This prison cell feels more like an invented Hollywood cliché prison than a real place. 

A script with these kinds of limitations needs a strong staging to make it all work. Surprisingly, Shotgun’s team under the direction of Patrick Dooley does not deliver the goods. 

This is a static production. You never feel the prisoners’ fear. As they go through their histrionics, the actors sound more like taunting school teens than terrified men on the brink of death. The subtext of conflict, terror and fear that the play needs to fly just isn’t there. 

As American doctor Adam, Richard J. Silberg does not manage to create a believable character. Adam does not seem genuinely affected by his incarceration. His mad scene, for one, comes off hammy and superficial. 

The evening’s strongest acting comes from Kevin Karrick, as widowed twitty Oxbridge English teacher Michael, when he opens up about his life in the final lap of the play, breaking down over the loss of his dead wife. Finally, there is a real emotional connection. 

With this scene, for the first time in the show one of the actors takes control of the theater and the audience. The production picks up from this point on, though it’s already close to the evening’s end. 

Karrick’s later fantasy story about driving his car through the sky over England and seeing places in the countryside he knows well is also powerful and magical. 

But other than these two moments from Karrick, this seems like a sloppy production. Generally, it’s hard to feel why the actors are interacting with each other in a given scene. From an acting point of view, the motivations and connections just aren’t there on the deep level that a play like this needs in order to work. 

In some ways, this feels like a hastily put-together production. For one, the chains that clamp each actor to a small space on the stage aren’t made much use of dramatically in the performances. 

It’s as though the actors didn’t have these binding physical restrictions to work with until the eleventh hour, and didn’t have time to find much meaningful business to do with them. 

"Someone to Watch over Me" seems like it should be a good play for Berkeley. Its themes are important. As Irishman Edward says, "Save us from all who believe they’re right." 

Hopefully we’ll see a strong production of this play sometime down the road. 

"Someone to Watch over Me," presented by Shotgun Players at the Eighth Street Studio, 2525 Eighth Street, Berkeley. The play is performed Thursday through Sunday to March 17. Call 655-0813 or go to