Marie Jones' 1999 Irish comedy Stones in His Pockets, the final production of Theatre Three's current subscription season, turns out to be this theater's best in many a moon. About time, too. This company has limped through the past year with a lineup of plays that were ill-chosen (Arsenic and Old Lace), badly acted and directed (Sly Fox, Dirty Blonde), hated by audiences (The Wild Party) and marked by tragedy (Mrs. Warren's Profession, which lost actor Lynn Mathis to a fatal heart attack the day before opening).
With its broad humor and sentimental nod to national pride, Stones is guaranteed not to gravel the moss-backed crowd that gathers at Theatre Three. The plot is simple, the actors pleasant and skilled. Nobody swears or strips past his skivvies (and even those are pretty modest garments, skivvy-wise).
The trick of this play lies in the casting, and director Jac Alder has picked two good Dallas actors, James Crawford and Michael Turner, to take on the show's 15 eccentric characters. Showcasing some fine physical dexterity and facility with accents, Crawford and Turner need only minimal props (a hat, a pipe, a hanky) and a few changes of costume to slip from men to women, doddering geezers to stammering youngsters. The split-second transitions aren't quite as startling as Greater Tuna's, but they are fun to watch.
The actors' main personae are Jake (Crawford) and Charlie (Turner), working-class lads cast as background extras in a big-budget Hollywood costume epic titled The Quiet Valley, shooting on location in their quaint Irish village. Jake recently has moved back to County Kerry after a short, unhappy stint in America. "I was homesick," he says. Charlie, obsessed with movies, is mourning the closing of his beloved video store. He dreams of writing a screenplay and making it big in showbiz, if only he could shove his handwritten script into the hand of a Hollywood bigwig.
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As the British director and his disorganized crew wrangle the townsfolk into position, Jake and Charlie strike up a friendship. Getting 40 quid a day (about $65) and meals in return for standing in the crowd looking "dispossessed," Charlie's happy for the "great money and free grub...it's a gift."
Soon other characters step forth, including the glamorous American starlet Caroline Giovanni (played with coquettish giggles by Turner), the prissy director named Clem (Turner again), an elderly Irishman (Crawford) who likes to boast that he's "the last living extra from The Quiet Man" and fluttery Ashley (Crawford), a harried production assistant who must cope with constant emergencies, including the director's complaint that the local cows "aren't Irish enough." Crawford and Turner also portray some kids, a priest, a burly bodyguard and the movie's studly male star. And if their female characters come off more like lisping, limp-wristed men, well, it still feels like they're playing a cast of thousands.
The playwright, herself a bit performer in films produced in Ireland, manages to work in some sly observations about the imperious attitude visiting film folk have toward the indigenous talent. When Caroline, the movie star, invites Jake back to her hotel room one evening, he assumes it's for a tryst. The star, he's been told, "has a habit of goin' ethnic--it helps her get into the part." But she wants to Streep, not sleep with him, asking Jake to read the script aloud so she can mimic his accent.
Act 2 turns serious when a village boy named Sean is kicked off the set and commits suicide by drowning himself in the river. The entire town wants to attend his funeral, which conflicts with the last day of filming--and the biggest crowd scenes--for The Quiet Valley. Jake and Charlie take up the cause, urging their army of extras to strike against this act of disrespect and exploitation by outsiders. The director gets the brunt of their wrath because "you come here, you use us and you use the land. Then you clear off!"
Everything turns out fine, of course. The end of the play actually goes soggy as mush when Jake and Charlie conspire to write their own screenplay about a young Irish boy driven to suicide by a visiting American film crew. And OK, it shouldn't go without notice that this is a play about how the Irish regard these Americans, who after all are probably pouring millions into the town coffers, as amoral, rude and shallow--and that these virtuous Irish heroes are here being played by American actors pretending to be Irish. Wrap your shillelagh around that one.
The funniest moment of Stones is Jake and Charlie's raucous two-man "Riverdance," a sarcastic stomp on the hokum of that worn-out Irish export. Stones in His Pockets is at its best when it's kicking up its heels and playing for laughs, not delving too deeply into its underlying theme of what it means to be fed a lifetime of Hollywood dreams only to be disillusioned by reality. And Theatre Three's production is at its best when its two actors are in the midst of their dizzying, kinetic shifts of voices, postures and gestures. There's an old Irish saying: "Good is never late." After a long string of losers, this theater waited very late to get a good one up.
Now here's a trend no theater lover loves: plays without intermissions. In recent months, more and more shows have turned up hereabouts that omit the crucial seventh-inning stretch. Playwright Neil LaBute seems especially averse to the long tradition of a short break mid-drama. His play The Mercy Seat, produced at Kitchen Dog, went on for nearly two hours without a respite. Quad C's otherwise lovely production of LaBute's The Shape of Things might not have suffered its second-hour spell of audience restlessness had there been some much-needed breathing space. Edward Albee's Marriage Play at the Bath House and The Wild Party at Theatre Three held their crowds captive until curtain call.
Besides providing time for a beverage and a pit stop, an intermission can also be an escape hatch. The other night I found myself trapped for 96 long minutes in a former bowling alley watching a production of Italian feminist monologues, the first of which went on for 45 minutes, followed by two more before the break. Before the show I'd asked the house manager the running time. Two and a half hours, I'd been told. In house manager lingo that means three, which meant that after intermission there would be at least 90 more minutes of this bone-numbing stuff to endure. Buh-bye.
Playwrights and directors, please remember, the people out there in the dark want to be entertained, not made to feel like hostages.
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