If every link to the lives we've known were abruptly severed, who would be left? For the three unwitting hostages rotting in a Beirut prison in Frank McGuinness' harrowing and often touching "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," the only way to maintain their tenuous hold on personal identity is by reaffirming their common humanity.
The ways they attempt it prove surprisingly fresh, engaging and even funny, despite the dire circumstances, in a sharp Actors Alley revival at the El Portal.
Clearly, none of McGuinness' finely drawn protagonists handle captivity well by nature. All three are civilians who were arbitrarily arrested on the street and shackled to a wall in a shabby, dilapidated cell, without even the formality of a charge or sentence. Adam (John Shaw), the senior hostage, is an American doctor who studiously exercises to maintain the veneer of a daily routine--but it's clear the endless uncertainty is taking its toll on his sanity.
His cellmate Edward (John Hugo), a talkative, freewheeling Irish journalist, has helped shore up Adam's spirits, but their social dynamic changes markedly with the arrival of Michael (Joe Garcia), a fussy, pedantic literature professor from England. Before you can say "potato famine," Michael and Edward are bickering over their cultural and political differences.
Their dawning recognition of how laughably irrelevant those differences are--especially after Adam's unexplained disappearance--is where the show's real magic lies. In gracefully nuanced performances, Hugo and Garcia bring heartfelt conviction to the blossoming affection between the two antagonists. While the first act occasionally borders on the formulaic in setting the scene, the second is relentlessly gripping as it depicts the increasingly desperate strategies they employ to retain some contact with their old lives--telling stories, singing songs or composing letters to their loved ones. In a priceless sequence, Garcia's Michael re-creates a Wimbledon match by following the action with his bobbing head and mouthing the popping sounds of the volleys.
Amid Richard Scully's impressively detailed set, complete with crumbling walls, shackles and realistic debris, a small but distracting misstep is the silver spray-paint on the plastic water containers--it doesn't look aged or squalid, it looks like silver spray-paint; beat-up canteens or tin pits would better serve. The good news is that it's the only chink in the authenticity of Jeremiah Morris' handsome staging.
"Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," El Portal Center, Studio Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 5. $16. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.