From Playbill February 1993, Vol. 93 No. 2, Pages 8, 10

A Rea of Starlight

Actor Stephen Rea makes a triumphant Broadway bow in Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

by Harry Haun

      Folks who visit Stephen Rea's dressing room backstage at the Booth are frequesntly surprised to find, dog-eared and open in front of his make-up table, a copy of Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me--a play which he performed to considerable acclaim and applause in England for 18 months and the one in which he is now making a tarty, but triumphant, Broadway bow.

      Then again, those who know Rea at all (or his work) know that he has progressed well beyond the An Actor Prepares textbook. This is an actor in perpetual preparation. "The way you possess" the play all the time," he says, picking his verbs advisedly, "is to work at it. You really have to stay on your toes with this one. If your mind wanders at all, you're dead. It's one of those driving parts."

      For almost two hours, save for a couple of minutes at the beginning and another couple at the end, the 43-year-old actor is onstage for the duration, very much in the driver's seat--albeit chained to the wall of the dingy Beirut basement along with an athletic American (James McDaniel) and a prissy Brit (Alec McCowen). Rea fits in with these strange bedfellows as another country heard from--a lowbrow Irish journalist who seems to be running nonstop on high-octane humor, a maniac vaudvillian trying to laugh off imprisonment.

      Humor as a survival tool, desperately disguising the darker moods, is the play's primary thrust--and an unexpectedly funny evening it is--but all three political prisoners surrender to despair during the course of the play.

      Some critics have complained that the play's comedy undercuts the somberness of its situation, but Rea begs to differ--in a very gentlemanly manner: "I wouldn't want to be defensive about any criticism that was genuinely leveled at the play--I'm willing to accept the possibility--but for me what's interesting is that John McCarthy's book abiyt being a hostage said the he and Brian Keenan would laugh all the time. That was how they survived."

      (McGuinness delayed production of the play, at Keenan's request, until John McCarthy's release. The latter's book was published after the play premiered.)

      "What Frank McGuinness guessed was that people in that situation had to laugh a lot. The more extreme the situation, the more extreme th ehumor. I think that's true in life. I think, actually, Irish people do that a lot."

      "Just look at Becket. The more appalling the situation, the funnier it gets. This play's like Godot for me: It's pared down to esswntials--just guys sitting, with no release, waiting for release, waiting for something."

      For Stephen Rea, journeyman actor who has reached a new level of stardom, a lot of waiting is now over. The public is abruptly aware of hiim of two different fronts: In addition to a Broadway bow of some brilliance, he is also reaping raves for a sleeper hit on th art-house circuit, The Crying Game, the Neil Jordan film in which, ironically, he plays a hostage taker for the IRA.

      The double whammy of these two opposite-number performances gives Rea shots at both the Tony and the Oscar. Even that notoriously cranky critic, John Simon, called him "the most dazzling addition to our histrionic horizon," praising in particular Rea's way of creating "the strongest possible effect with the most economic means--and if that isn't great acting, what is?"

      So it would seem, after more than 16 years of searching, fame has found him, though in the interim Rea has himself a Field Day, which is the name of the touring acting company he ran with Brian (Dancing at Lughnasa) Friel to present new Irish writing all over Irland. "We toured a play a year. I was very committed to this company--and I still am--but after ten years of touring, I got tired. It's rough work, going from town to village--a day here, a half-week there--so about two years ago, I decided it was time to do some film. It was a tricky moment to decide that, since there was no film industry in England and a very spasmodic one in Ireland, but I was very lucky. Within months--within weeks, really--Neil Jordan came up with The Crying Game. We worked together on a couple of films before, and he asked me to do it before he actually wrote it."

      The decade he put in on the road with Field Day was, he's the first to admit, politically motivated, "inevitably, in a sense we believe Ireland is one thing, and that partition isn't helping anybody. It was a gesture toward unity in Ireland. We felt, if people all over Ireland were hearing the same thing, it'd be a common experience.

      "Irish theatre involves itself in those questions of identity and language--Engish theatre doesn't--and that was very much partof the Field Day thing. I was deeply involved in that because I believe all the appalling things that are happening in Northern Ireland come out of these crises of identity and language."

      To that end, Rea has given both his sons Irish handles. Oscar,2, is named after Irish-born Oscar Wilde, and Danny, who just turned four, got his name from the film character Rea played in his first film, Angel. "I've played a lot of characters named Danny, actually. It's just a naturally sympathetic name, and it has some romance to it--maybe not in this town, but to me it has."

      Rea's wife, Dolours Price, and their sons just joined him here while the Broadway beat goes on and the acclaim continues. "At the moment it's very pleasant. I took my children to the Children's Museum the other day, and a woman came across the street to say she liked the movie and play. This happens every day. I'm trying not to get use to it. I may be going home in a couple, and that may be the end of the 'high profile.'"

      This is modestly talking. Truth is, Stephen Rea has come front and center with his talent, and that means by may never be able to go home again.

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