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Theater Review | Ambitious ‘Stones in His Pockets’ soars at Lyric Stage

Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 02:02

    A comedy about the impoverished, disillusioned and exploited folks of Ireland’s County Kerry? The incongruous concept is intriguing. The play, “Stones in His Pockets,” is an inventive tale, a riotous performance of what unfolds in a quiet, wet village when a Hollywood film crew comes to shoot another romanticized version of the hackneyed Irish pastoral.

  

 Written in 1996 by Marie Jones in Ireland, the play also appeared in London where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and reaped several Tony nominations when it moved to Broadway.

    

This is a comedy to be appreciated — for its original script, to be sure, but especially for its players. The two male actors take the stage like a pair of crazies invigorated by multi-personality disorder. The dynamic duo maintains a genuine grasp on the identities of about a dozen parts: Irish locals, film extras, a Hollywood starlet, a heartless British director and other members of the American film crew. The first act presents an initial challenge for the audience: one must pay attention to the actors’ verbal and visual cues so as not to confuse their many and tremendously juxtaposed characters for a confused pair.

  

 The two actors, Phil Tayler and Daniel Berger-Jones — whose most prominent roles are those of two young Irishmen — are a thrill to watch as they dance around the stage, bounding off each other’s energy without missing a beat. Their ability to convincingly impersonate multiple different characters in rapid succession is impressive. With distinct changes in body language, posture, accent, dialect and gait, the two actors move fluidly from character to character, challenging the audience to keep up with their comic rhythm. Like a well-choreographed dance, the constant interchange of their characters keeps the audience engaged, although it may test the patience of purists.

  

 There is something inherently funny about watching such dramatic changes in personalities, regardless of the witty banter that the script provides. This is no-nonsense acting; in agreement with the minimalist set, there is no running around throwing on different costumes and wigs. Careful transitions seem to carry the actors effortlessly from each genuine persona to the next. Supplementing their many other roles, Tayler plays Jake Quinn, a local from Country Kerry, and Berger-Jones plays Charlie Conlon, a meddler in town for the 40 quid a day paid to each extra in the film.

    

Jake is an amusing fellow whose lines range from humorous ironies to bitter reminders of reality. He and Charlie are a couple of nobodies from the “Arsehole of Nowhere,” but it is easy to forget that downtrodden sentiment when he tries — and fails — to take credit for the famous words of a hardened Irish poet in order to woo a hopelessly romantic Hollywood starlet. The sheer ridiculousness of the scene makes it all the more entertaining; this starlet — none other than America’s own Caroline Giovanni — is hilariously rendered by the very masculine- looking Berger-Jones, whose height towers over Jake’s. The audience chuckles as he curls his shoulders, tucks his hair behind his ears and constricts his voice into that of the pampered, know-it-all princess who feigns empathy with the Irish locals and deems them “so simple, uncomplicated and contented.” Her foolish conceptions sometimes insult, but the audience — as well as the star-struck Irishmen who fawn at her feet — cannot help but (somewhat) sympathize with her.

  

 Meanwhile, the Irish locals whom Caroline imagines to be living a lush, green life are barked at by the director to stand “frozen” and “dispossessed” as extras in the film. This isn’t far from reality, especially when the director requires them to be on set rather than attend the funeral of a friend.

  

 While the director demands to see “real f--king ecstasy” in every shot of his film — ironically titled “A Quiet Valley” — the audience learns toward the close of the show that two of the lead characters have been repressing somber secrets. Their confessions leave the audience compassionate toward the exploited Irish and critical of the Hollywood crew, but the sudden tragedy comes a bit unexpected. Had such vulnerability been more apparent from the start, the desperation of Jake and Charlie might have been more resonant.

    

The intricate mix of characters and the collection of ideas that they convey — exploitation, disenchantment, delusion and optimism — may be a bit overambitious for one play. The two actors, however, take a script that tries to say a lot and make it a performance that effectively does say a lot. Their masterful and original interpretation of the play is well worth watching, and in the intimate setting of the Lyric Stage theatre, the audience will feel especially enamored by this lively and authentic show.

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