June 14, 2004
They've given us whisky, a national holiday and U2, but what have we Americans given to the Irish? Why, the same seductive export with which we've colonized the imagination of the entire globe: the movies.
In Marie Jones' ebullient Stones in His Pockets, which opened at the Mark Taper Forum last week, Hollywood makes an actual incursion into the Emerald Isle, descending on a small rural town in County Kerry to give a potboiler called The Quiet Valley an authentically rustic backdrop. The lush green vistas don't charge a fee, but the scores of extras culled from the destitute local populace set the film back 40 quid a day each.
Even without a film crew in the vicinity, though, the American entertainment empire has already made its presence felt: One extra, we learn, was put out of business when a Blockbuster opened across from his storefront video store. And one starstruck, drug-addled teen who can't get hired by the visiting production finds his brush with silver-screen royalty fatally discouraging.
As if to show up the deep-pocketed fabulists of Hollywood with sheer storytelling resourcefulness, Jones tells this modest tale with just two actors, and director Neel Keller's expert production matches her in bald simplicity: Richard Hoover's set consists of a simple wood platform and a scrim with a rolling trunk, two apple boxes, a tree branch clamped to a tripod and a few director's chairs. Rand Ryan's exquisitely modulated lighting eases us deftly from place to place.
Keller's actors do all the rest, playing both the two main characters, Jake and Charlie, and 13 others. By itself the sheer pleasure of watching J.D. Cullum's and Barry McEvoy's bravura quick changes--not accomplished with costumes but with posture, voice, accent--is enough to recommend this two-hander.
Cullum is the more demonstrative of the two, with a sharp voice and Greek-mask features that illuminate Jake's mix of bright and bitter spirits, as well as the sweeping officiousness of a female assistant director, the harsh anger of a volatile teen and the crusty resilience of an old-timer who boasts of being "the only surviving extra from The Quiet Man." The irresistible McEvoy is the show's secret weapon. His Charlie has an authentically stalwart look that doesn't feel acted at all.
That apparent effortlessness may be what gives his gallery of characters--a sultry American actress putting the moves on Jake, a beleaguered director, a gruff priest, a bereaved father, a bowlegged bodyguard--added relish.
The laughs eventually snag on a tragedy spurred in part by the film shoot. This does more than give this largely comic play a melancholic shading; it's also the pivot on which Jake and Charlie's dreams of success turn from idle hopes to sieze-the-day realism. By this point some of the locals have begun to turn against their visiting masters. And as we watch Jake and Charlie give ever more ridiculous performances as extras--"We're supposed to look at her looking at us looking dispossessed," Jake interprets one direction--Stones in His Pockets hits its stride as a broad sendup of cultural commodification.
The Irish have collaborated in their own typecasting, of course; at one point Jake, trying to impress the American actress, claims a poem of Seamus Heaney's as his own. And possibly nothing sums up the play's joyful upending of this shameless blarney-peddling than an ironic extended jig--staged with perfect in-character silliness by Ken Roht--in which Jake and Charlie manage both to genuinely entertain us and make us laugh at our own delight with this Gaelic minstrel show.
By play's end, the two are fantasizing about their own anti-Hollywood independent film, to open with close-ups of big, brutish, farting cows. These two would-be anonymous extras have grown some stones, indeed.