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Luck of the Irish 

Theater Review: Stones in His Pockets, St. Michael's Playhouse

The grass is always greener somewhere just beyond the horizon, even when the emerald hills of Ireland are home. Hollywood-fueled dreams inspire, beguile and sometimes crush the characters of Stones in His Pockets, the culture-clash comedy now on stage at St. Michael's Playhouse.

County Kerry is the Northeast Kingdom of Ireland: geographically remote, with stunningly beautiful scenery, quaint villages and villagers typecast by outsiders, rightly or wrongly, as unsophisticated. When a big-budget extravaganza comes to film in the county, locals scramble for lucrative work as extras.

Belfast-born playwright Marie Jones has deftly drawn the two-sided seduction: naïve townsfolk lured by money, glamour and the possibility of escape; and jaded urbanites enthralled by a romanticized vision of the countryside and its people. Illusion and delusion provide abundant opportunity for comic misunderstanding.

The play's bravura stroke -- or grand gimmick, depending on your point of view -- is that two actors perform all the roles: a baker's dozen of Irishmen, Brits and Yanks, men and women, kids and geezers. Under the direction of Catherine Doherty, Aaron Munoz and John Hayden meet the considerable challenge with strong acting chops and more than a glint of Celtic glee.

Each actor plays a principal role, and dips in and out of other parts without changing costumes or relying on props. Munoz is Jake Quinn and Hayden is Charlie Conlon, two extras working for the grand sum of 40 pounds a day on the set of the period romance, which is titled The Quiet Valley. Both in their mid-thirties, the men have failed previous attempts to transcend their rural roots. Jake is "back on the dole and living with his ma" after trying his luck in America; Charlie's video-store business folded after a Blockbuster-like behemoth came to town.

Although this is Jake and Charlie's first film, the picturesque locale has hosted Hollywood before, and some townspeople have gotten wise to its ways. The pub owner's wife hurries to fix a sandwich for American starlet Caroline Giovanni so she can hang a sign saying the actress ate there -- in order to draw tourists following the movie's release. Teen drug addict Sean knows the film's crew have cocaine, and gets infuriated when they won't give him any. Seventysomething Mickey has been in every Kerry-based movie since John Wayne's The Quiet Man, and he schools Jake and Charlie in How to Be an Extra between sips from his flask.

The realities of the filming itself, however, soon disabuse Jake and Charlie of any hazy Hollywood notions. They face crack-of-dawn calls, bumpy minibus rides to remote locations, and standing around in biting winds to dig turf. "A background bog man ... dead glamorous," says Jake. Historical incongruities begin to bother them, as do the implausible story and the appalling accents. They soon realize they are just part of the scenery, somewhat less important than the more photogenic, windswept Blasket Islands.

The hardest part comes as the extras are forced to portray overjoyed peasants at a wedding when internally they're processing complex emotions after an unexpected tragedy. Some of the townspeople blame the outsiders for their loss. The moviemakers' sheen of power and confidence has masked bull-in-the-china-shop behavior; their arrogance has translated into roughshod treatment of the town's most vulnerable members. But with production costs at a quarter-million dollars per day, the extras find they have some leverage after all.

It takes a little while to sort out the multiple characters in this play, as they're performed by just two actors, and Doherty's direction seemed rather static at first. But Hayden and Munoz quickly established their main characters' easy charm, with help from early running jokes about Charlie's relationship with gin (lip-loosening), and Jake's kinship to just about everyone in town. The actors shifted into their secondary roles by passing behind one another, or simply spinning around, and then changing accents or mannerisms.

Hayden captured Charlie's willful optimism. "This is Charlie's day of good cheer, nothing or nobody is going to put me in Joe Depressos." He also confidently embodied the slick superiority of British director Clem. He did, however, struggle with the key role of manipulative movie star Caroline. Although he effectively used gestures like tossing imagined tresses and pushing them behind his ear, Caroline sometimes came off not as a self-assured seductress but as a tired drag queen who needed her meds adjusted.

By contrast, Munoz -- whose figure had all the inherent femininity of Horatio Sanz -- was terrific as the eager-beaver female assistant director, Aisling. Girly without the swish, he conveyed her flirtiness by crinkling his eyes and cocking his head just so. He also made a memorable Mickey -- wise and wizened, pickled by the liquor and stooped by his hard years, but a proud Irishman nonetheless.

John Paul Devlin's set design was spare. The sloped floor was painted in the bright, mottled greens of Irish hills. Three flat panels stood at the back of the stage, their scrims framed with black sprockets like giant strips of film. A travel-stickered black trunk played as many roles as did each of the actors, and a concealed trapdoor opened to admit a few other props. The square angles of the set, however, sometimes felt confining, and limited the actors' range of motion.

Devlin also designed the lighting, and he used it to play wonderful tricks with the scrim panels. They became showers and shadow boxes, and dropped to a deep indigo background color to indicate when a scene from Quiet Valley was rolling. Sound effects were used judiciously, although they sometimes had a slightly tinny cast; perhaps even more traditional music could have been incorporated. One delightful addition to Jones' script was a dramatic voice-over that opened Act II: a faux trailer for Quiet Valley, coming soon (not!) to a theater near you.

Stones in His Pockets was entertaining, but it seems valid to ask if the play would work with 13 actors instead of two. Would it be as funny to have a hunched old man hobble in to play Mickey as it was to see Munoz lean down, cock his cap, and scrunch up his face? Actually, no, and it might even be a little sad. Munoz was hilarious as Aisling, but it might be hard for a woman playing her to get as many laughs -- "she" handles the extras brusquely, then flirts and sucks up shamelessly to her boss.

Stones in His Pockets is a play with heart, and Jake and Charlie work hard to salvage a happy ending. They discard the trashy, cliche-ridden script Charlie has been trying to peddle, and plot a way to tell a real Kerry story. Will it ever happen, or is this more pie-in-the-sky blarney, spun every night at the pub under the influence of Guinness? Jones leaves us hoping they will succeed. Munoz and Hayden created such genuine audience affection for Jake and Charlie that the standing ovation might have been as much to support their characters' lofty dreams as to laud the actors' lusty performances.

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