By Daniel Frezza
In rural County Kerry, a Hollywood company is on location filming a grand, romantic Irish saga. We see a few days of the shooting and the ups and downs this intrusion has on the villagers—in particular on two of the movie's extras, Jake and Charlie. That, in a nutshell, is the situation in the recent New York and London hit play Stones in His Pockets. (If the combination of an Irish village, an American film company, plus numerous references to cows reminds you of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, you are up-to-date on contemporary Irish drama.) In this very funny and at times serious work, Irish playwright Marie Jones takes shots at Hollywood and the Irish, offers a clear-eyed look at both the bright and the dark sides of show business (she's an actress herself), and says some interesting things about hopes and illusions. Jake and Charlie frequently scoff at the film's fanciful story because it's not true to real life, yet Jones keeps the emotional conflicts and intellectual arguments nicely balanced. Empty illusions exist outside of Hollywood too, and those of real life are worse than those in the movies for they can be demoralizing and sometimes fatal. Above all else, though, Stones in His Pockets is a celebration of theatricality, virtuosity, and of “Hey, kids, let's put on a show!” pluck.
The most unusual aspect of Stones in His Pockets is how it works. Only two actors play all the characters. This play, however, doesn't rely on quick offstage costume changes as does the evergreen 1982 hit Greater Tuna, where the two actors who play all the characters alternate leaving the stage to return dressed as their next character. In Stones in His Pockets the two actors remain on stage, instantly shifting back and forth among more than a dozen characters with only a change of voice, stance, gesture, and perhaps the aid of a costume piece or a prop. The roots of Jones's approach might be traced to the type of storytelling where the speaker doesn't simply relate what the characters say but impersonates the characters. The play's construction, too, shares a characteristic of the genial storyteller: looping back to fill in needed detail. This is, of course, the flashback, familiar in movies and television but not often used on stage.
Stones in His Pockets explores parallels as well as differences between the movies and life. “Showbiz” is such an unstable mix of hard-headed business, artistry, greed, skill, ego, imagination, estimating (or underestimating) the public's tastes and interests, and sheer luck that fame and financial success are rare. “Talent is talent. . . . It wins through in the end,” says Charlie; and Jake retorts: “You don't believe that do ya?” (Marie Jones, Stones in His Pocket. [Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. New York, 2001] p. 30). Nor, when fame and success come, are they a sure indicator of what's true and valuable. Chatting up the film's star, Caroline, Jake asks what he should do to break into the movies. Caroline tells him-most emphatically—“You don't want to get into the movies” (p. 51). We sense that her outburst stems from genuine disillusionment with her profession. This is a possibility that Jake can't quite comprehend and that Charlie flatly rejects when told about it later. Since one of the themes of Stones in His Pockets is disappointment, it is fitting to remember Pam Brighton and Tim Murphy, respectively the director and the actor who played Jake in the original 1996 Belfast production of Stones in His Pockets. (Jane Coyle, “Juggernaut rolls into town” [Irish Times, Dublin. August 8, 1996] p. 6]). Both were replaced for the completely revised 1999 version which was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival then London, New York, and now around the world. Though Brighton and Murphy weren't involved in shaping the play that became so successful and even though Brighton lost her court case in which she claimed part copyright ownership in Stones in His Pockets (“Success in her pockets.” [Irish Times, Dublin. May 22, 2004] p. 54), their work on the earlier version almost certainly contributed something to the later version, if only by helping to reveal what didn't work well.
Stones in His Pockets allows-in fact, calls for-wide latitude in production. The script grew out of collaboration between Jones and her director and actors. As she put it: “I had no idea how I would have staged it. In a funny way, it's like radio: nothing there but words and a few signs” (Jones, p. 10). Thus, a truly alive production will draw afresh on the collaborative inventiveness of its director and performers to an unusual degree and any two productions are likely to vary a good deal. For example, a row of old shoes against the back wall was featured in the 2001 New York production. (Ben Brantley, “Wearing everyone's shoes, yet being themselves” [The New York Times, April 2, 2001] p. E-1). They aren't called for in the script, however, and may not show up in other productions. Or they just might; theatre artists have been known to recycle appealing ideas. Even if you've seen this show before, expect to find a lot that's new in this production.
Unlike her two principal characters, Jones knows how to wrap up a story. After spending most of the play dashing would-be playwright Charlie's hopes, the pessimist Jake at last catches the bug and encourages Charlie to turn the tragic death they recently experienced into a film script. Their attempt to sell the story to Clem, the director of the film in which they are extras, is shot down; though he might be interested if they added a love interest and scrapped the suicide. Charlie defends his story by saying that it's true to what actually happened. “People want happy endings,” says Clem finally (Jones, p. 91). Are Jake and Charlie dismayed? Not on your life. Rejecting Clem's advice, they talk themselves into a state of giddy enthusiasm as the play ends. Jake and Charlie may eventually come to accept Clem's lesson, though. Jones has. Critic Nancy Franklin summed up her review of Stones in His Pockets this way: “Its crowd-pleasing ending is corny, but it's also perfect: you think it represents the triumph of the authentic over the phony, and then it occurs to you that Jones has tricked you one last time-she's written the kind of ending that could only happen in the movies”(Nancy Franklin. “Blarney Stones” [The New Yorker, April 16, 2001] p. 88). Or on stage. As Clem says: “Movies aren't real life”(Jones, p. 90). Nor are plays. If a play or film makes us laugh or cry or think (or, ideally, all three), does it matter how much it resembles real life?