Stones In His Pockets
With its gorgeously green countryside and chock-full o’ characters populace, Ireland has long been a lure for Hollywood. Unfortunately, Hollywood has as often cast painfully non-Gaelic Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts in the lead roles. By putting the local extras at the center of "Stones in His Pockets," Belfast-bred playwright Marie Jones milks laughs from the Hollywood circus around them. But what’s surprising is how touching the production is.
First a hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999, "Stones" transferred to London where it became a West End staple for three seasons, winning the 2001 Olivier Award for Best Comedy. With its original cast, the play opened on Broadway in April 2001 and ran for six months, netting three Tony Award nominations for direction and the performances of actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill.
Its plot centers on Jake, back in his hometown where the Hollywood flick "The Quiet Valley" is being filmed, newcomer Charlie, both working as extras on the film. Starring American film star Caroline Giovanni and directed by Brit Clem, it’s Irish Simon and Aisling, the first and third assistant directors respectively, who have to wrangle the herd of local extras. Thanks to the number of movies being filmed in Ireland (as Jake puts it, Hollywood loves their naturally dispossessed look), the locals are surprisingly savvy, including old, gnarled Mickey, the last surviving extra from John Wayne’s "The Quiet Man," who lives for the 40 quid a day he’s paid so he can take it promptly to the pub.
All these characters and more are played by just two actors, Phil Tayler, previously at the Lyric in "Avenue Q" and fresh off "Marry Me a Little" at New Rep, and Daniel Berger-Jones, of the Lyric’s "Nicholas Nickleby" and the now defunct Orfeo Group. Although a few of their characterizations are less successful (the walk that Tayler picks to shorthand the ambitious Aisling reads more swishy queen than young woman), most are surprisingly fully realized for a show with such a breakneck pace.
Although Tayler and Berger-Jones are most comfortable as main characters Jake and Charlie, Berger-Jones is delightful as California babe/movie star Caroline, continuously sweeping imaginary wispy bangs behind his ear, and Simon, pained by both the production delays and the fact that his reputation is dinged by every stereotypical bar brawling countryman. And Tayler makes Jake and contemporary local Sean, once a sweet boy and now an angry drug addict, distinct and touching in their own ways.
Director Courtney O’Connor has wisely pared back this production, with a meticulously detailed stonewall by scenic designer Matthew Whiton and some benches serving as the only set, and eschewing much in the way of separate costume pieces per character. Instead, Tayler and Berger-Jones switch characters by simply turning their caps around or using them as clipboards or mikes, and scenes flow into each other with well-timed changes of light and background sound (credit not only lighting designer Margo Cadell and sound designer Brendan Doyle for creating believably separate places but also stage manager Nerys Powell for running a very tight ship).
The lack of any interruptions means the pacing of the comedic scenes escalates nicely and the only pauses come when O’Connor, Tayler and Berger-Jones opt to slow down the action to probe at the pain beneath the comedy. Both Jake and Charlie are making money as extras only after their respective failures. Jake is depressed by having to come back home after failing to make it big in America and events makes him even more so. Former video store owner Charlie (driven out of business by Blockbuster) is more optimistic, hoping to have anyone connected with the film read a screenplay he’s written, but he proves as damaged as Jake.
The pacing lags a bit at the same time the second act starts to overstay its welcome, but Tayler and Berger-Jones remain appealing throughout. With a few more shows to polish the ending, "Stones" could become a flawless emerald of a show.
"Stones in His Pockets" continues through March 16 at the Lyric Stage at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston. For more info you can go to the show’s website.