An American doctor named Adam, an Irish journalist named Edward, and an English professor named Michael have been thrown into the same cell without explanation. At first, they seem to be stereotypes: Adam, the embodiment of Yankee idealism, passes time in his cell by reading the Bible and exercising; Michael, a picture of English manners, comforts himself by remembering the great works of literature; and Edward is a Northern Irish loose cannon who is hell-bent on infuriating both of them. As the play progresses, the playwright subverts these archetypes in unpredictable ways. Throughout, the hostages' unseen captors literally "watch over" them through a grated ceiling.
One could argue that the play has less to do with any Middle Eastern dispute than with the conflict between Ireland and England. Captivity has reduced three men from varying cultures, beliefs, and walks of life to the same miserable level, yet they're still governed by the same social divides. In one scene, they pretend to make martinis for each other but Michael orders a spot of sherry instead; in another, they imagine writing letters to their loved ones, and Edward tells his wife about his misfortune of having an English cellmate. In a Sartrean twist, these two prisoners harass each other.
Still, this revival does have some relevance to contemporary Middle Eastern unrest. When the hostages are forced to cover their heads with black canvas bags, it's difficult for American audiences not to think Abu Ghraib. (Deanna Berg must have had those incidents in mind while designing the costumes.) Some of the play's strongest moments come from what isn't seen; the invisibility of the prison guards makes their power all the more chilling.
The Sounding Theatre Company, which is making its debut with this production, has assembled a very capable cast and crew. Rob Cameron has a strong presence as the earnest American, and his eyes become glassy as he descends into madness. Laurence Lowry's Edward is crude, crass, and tough, which makes his more vulnerable moments especially effective. (Towards the end of the play, he sits in his chair and imagines flying back home in a magic car, thereby giving Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a low-tech run for its money.) Damian Buzzerio displays impeccable comic timing as the long-winded academic and also finds the heart of this verbose character.
Set designer Antje Ellermann, fresh from her impressive work in Nine Parts of Desire, uses the matchbox-sized Abingdon space to create a duly claustrophobic set with dusty rugs on a filthy floor, chairs held together by duct tape, and a metal grate hanging precariously overhead. When the characters discuss not being able to discern whether it's day or night, Peter West's understated, sterile lighting makes the point in a striking way. The ominous presence of the prison guards is clearly felt thanks to the efforts of sound designer Fabian Obispo.
Speaking of sound design: Most people will recognize the title of the play as a phrase from the George & Ira Gershwin ballad "Someone to Watch Over Me," the famed Ella Fitzgerald recording of which is played between scenes. The song resonates on many levels, apart from the immediate irony of the characters being watched; it speaks to their longing for intimacy and the friendships that they form with each other. McGuinness employs the Gershwin classic in an unlikely but highly effective way.