January 24, 2018

Filmmakers Disrupt an Irish Village in “Stones in His Pockets”; Marie Jones’ Bittersweet Comedy Plays at McCarter Theatre

“STONES IN HIS POCKETS”: Performances are underway for “Stones in His Pockets.” Directed by Lindsay Posner, the play runs through February 11 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Irishmen Charlie (Garrett Lombard, left) and Jake (Aaron Monaghan), who are extras on a film, have a conversation in between takes. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Stones in His Pockets is playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Written by Belfast-based playwright and performer Marie Jones, whose acting credits include the films In the Name of the Father and Closing the Ring, this 1996 tragicomedy examines a subject that obviously is topical now: abuse of power in the entertainment industry. From its actors the play requires great versatility, which here is delivered in full by Garrett Lombard and Aaron Monaghan.

The cast and crew of an American film, The Quiet Valley, arrive to film on location in a village in County Kerry, Ireland. The stage resembles a lush green countryside; on it have been placed several trunks containing assorted film equipment. Clearly, the production is an intrusion on a natural, idyllic landscape. Two Irishmen, Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, are working as extras in the film.

Technically, Stones in His Pockets is a two-hander. The cast consists only of Lombard as Charlie, and Monaghan as Jake. This, however, is deceptive. There are at least 15 characters, requiring that the two actors fill multiple roles.

Charlie begs a caterer for another slice of lemon meringue pie, saying that it is for an extra who has “sprained his ankle.” Jake is amused when the caterer refuses Charlie’s request. Simon, the film’s first assistant director, barks orders to Aisling, the third assistant director. Aisling, in turn, screams at the extras to get in place.

Charlie tells Jake that his video store lost business to a chain: Blockbuster. They stand near Mickey, an extra who is in his 70s. Mickey is the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man, a 1952 film that starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

Caroline Giovanni, the flamboyant American star of The Quiet Valley, appears, accompanied by John, her dialect coach. Caroline is having trouble with her Irish accent, and John suggests that she listen to townspeople speaking at the local bar. Jake observes Caroline’s beauty, as well as her unconvincing accent. Charlie reveals to Jake that he’s written a script. He tries to show it to Aisling, but she does not have time to read it. Later she suggests that Charlie give it to the production office.

Sean Harkin, Jake’s estranged cousin, appears. Obviously high on drugs, he is bitter that Aisling removed him from the set. At the bar, Sean asks if anyone has drugs; he angrily leaves when he is not given any.

Charlie and Jake see Caroline in a corner of the bar, and eventually Caroline invites Jake to her hotel for a drink. Later we learn that Jake read to Caroline from the works of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in an unsuccessful attempt to pretend that he wrote them.

Despite this, Caroline wants to meet Jake again for coffee, if only for ten minutes. However, this is only because she wants his help with her Irish accent. During the meeting Jake becomes angry with Caroline’s condescending attitude, and leaves before the ten minutes are over.

Fin, a friend of Sean, tells Charlie and Jake that Sean has committed suicide by drowning himself in the lake; his pockets were full of stones. Fin recalls that Sean had hoped to leave Ireland and travel to America to act in films. Eventually we discover that he had tried to speak to Caroline the night before he died, but she had him removed from the bar. Later, Sean saw Caroline leave with Jake.

Sean’s death makes it difficult for the extras to evince joy while filming the happy ending of The Quiet Valley. Nick, the American director of the movie, realizes that the weather has necessitated an extra day of filming. The fact that this will conflict with Sean’s funeral is of no concern to the people in charge of the production, and the extras are warned that they will be fired if they abandon the set to attend the funeral.

Stones in His Pockets premiered at the West Belfast Festival in 1996. In 2001 the London production won two Olivier Awards, and the Broadway production was nominated for three Tony Awards.

Of course, the movie industry has been examined and satirized in numerous films and stage shows. The late 1980s and early 1990s produced stage musicals such as City of Angels and Sunset Boulevard (the latter was based on the 1950 film), and movies such as Barton Fink and The Player.

Stones in His Pockets is distinguished by its recurring theme of dualism, as embodied by the cast of two main characters. Jones explores the dualism between the powerful and the oppressed; optimism and pessimism; cinematic joy and real pain.

The choice to have the two actors play multiple roles is effective because of the precision with which each role has been assigned. In addition to Charlie, the aspiring screenwriter, Lombard portrays characters who tend to represent those who have become powerful in Hollywood, such as Caroline and Nick. Jake, the cynical native of the town in which The Quiet Valley is being filmed, is played by Monaghan, whose other roles include the defiant Mickey and the bitter Sean. Most of Monaghan’s characters are used, or ill-used, by the elite members of the film industry, portrayed by Lombard.

The actors’ performances reinforce this power dynamic, as does Lindsay Posner’s direction. As Caroline, Lombard is feminine in a grandiose manner. As Nick, he is oily and patronizing; in a crucial scene, director Lindsay Posner places him on one of the trunks, so that he physically towers above one of Monaghan’s characters.

As Mickey, Monaghan always crouches, looking up at the characters to whom he speaks. This partly gives him the appearance of an old man, but it also places him in an inescapable position of servitude — despite the defiant attitude of much of his dialogue. Such signature postures, as well as a variety of dialects, are invaluable in ensuring that the fast-paced transitions between characters are clear to the audience.

Creative decisions by the production team accentuate the theme of dualism. Lindsay Jones’ music and sound design give the film-within-a-play sequences a heightened sense of Hollywood artifice. Japhy Weideman’s lighting plays a crucial role in establishing time and place, particularly during flashbacks.

Beowulf Borritt’s color-coordinated set and costumes employ a subdued palette that puts the brashness of the filmmakers firmly out of place. Borritt’s projection design begins the show with a film leader (countdown reel), and concludes it with a list of credits. While this blurring of the distinction between movies and “reality” might seem to undercut the theme of dualism, it is effective. The characters are immersed in the world of film, and their dialogue toward the end of the play makes the projections even more organic to Jones’ script.

Stones in His Pockets is a timely, poignant, but often witty play that requires its actors to finesse numerous transitions between multiple characters — often at a hectic pace.

Lombard and Monaghan are more than equal to the task, and their performances are outstanding. It is ironic — or fitting — that a play about filmmaking reminds us how live theater can afford actors the scope to display their virtuosity.

“Stones in His Pockets” will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 11. For tickets, show times, and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.