Shooting o' the Green

With Saint Patrick's Day on the horizon, the Irish are likely to briefly reenter the public consciousness. Beyond the usual beer and blarney, even the most casual thoughts of Ireland tend to center on its long struggle against foreign invasion and domination; the English went at it for 800 years. An incursion of quite another sort is the subject of Stones in His Pockets, a recent New York hit now in its Florida premiere at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton. Marie Jones' play centers on a small Irish town in picturesque County Kerry, where a major Hollywood film is being shot. The confrontation between the movie folk and the locals makes for a good dose of classic Irish humor -- piquant and often ribald but haunted by darkness.

The story is told from the point of view of two film extras who have a lot of time to stand around and chat between scenes. Charlie Conlon is struggling to make ends meet after his video rental business went belly up because Blockbuster took away his customers. He's pretty much homeless but still dreams of becoming a screenwriter, and he hopes to slip his script to a bigwig on the set. Actor Jake Quinn, on the other hand, has been there, done that. Jake had a go at conquering New York but threw in the towel and returned to Kerry to live with his mother. This sad-sack pair encounters an array of film folk -- a hard-driving assistant director, his smug female assistant, the cold-blooded English director, and the narcissistic female star, who takes a sudden interest in Jake. To the close-knit townsfolk, the Hollywood crowd seems stellar at first, embodying excitement and dreams fulfilled. Soon, though, the visitors' patronizing selfishness and relentless work obsessions make them seem inhuman, more like space aliens than stars. When one character commits suicide (the play's title references this central event), the film producers refuse to halt production, even to allow the extras to attend the funeral.

Stones requires that this colorful array of characters be portrayed by a pair of resourceful actors, and the Caldwell production certainly has those. George C. Heslin and Declan Mooney, two New York-based Irish actors, create distinct personalities in lightning-fast switches. Sometimes, director Michael Hall has Heslin and Mooney switch character instantly on stage. At others, he adroitly stages quick exits for rapid costume changes and makes good use of minimal set pieces; in the course of the story, an omnipresent camera-equipment case on wheels becomes, among other things, a table, a desk, and a casket. These transformations are helped along by Thomas Saltzman's lighting, which uses understated projections against a background framing that looks like movie film stock.

The two-man concept has some theatrical appeal -- it's fun to watch Heslin and Mooney switch roles, but there are costs. For starters, playwright Jones doesn't use this theatrical device to make any thematic point. Beyond this, Hall and company seem overly focused on the mechanics of moving from one character to the next without devoting enough attention to the individuals themselves. Several roles are flat-out caricatures (the portrayal of the female assistant is so clumsy that she comes across as an extreme gay stereotype, lisp, weak wrists, and all, rather than a plausible young woman). Except for Charlie and Jake, the other characters are identified by physical gestures -- an old geezer has a stiff leg and a bent back, the movie star tosses her hair -- rather than by emotional texture. As a result, the show seems more handicapped than helped by its two-man concept -- it seems more like a failed movie script salvaged as theater, and its hard-working cast seems more dutiful than delighted, at times looking as if they are trying to cover for a larger cast that didn't show up for work.

Stones uses its array of colorful characters in broadly comedic ways but at its heart is a critique of cultural domination that's stone-cold serious. In part, it's a complaint of a cultural invasion, as the traditional Irish culture is quickly being eroded by modernity, and the process is blamed, as usual with Europeans, on America. It's also a defense of oral culture (and by extension, the theatrical tradition) against the vacuity and underlying menace of visual communication. The play pairs narcissism and addiction as the twin dangers of modern entertainment. It's telling that the suicide victim suffers from both and that the film's narrative has to do with the 19th-century dispossession of Irish tenants by English overlords, who, the play suggests, have been replaced by American cultural overlords. Written by prolific Northern Irish playwright Jones, Stones debuted in Belfast in 1996, back when the Irish government was vigorously luring film production through tax rebates and direct subsidies. As a result, by the mid-1990s, Ireland was ablaze with both indigenous and Hollywood-financed productions. (One reason the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart look so expert is because both were shot on location in Ireland, with the Irish army serving as warrior extras.) With the demise of government support, that heyday is dead and gone now, and the laments of cultural imperialism have faded away. Perhaps Jones can come back with a sequel to Stones, lamenting the loss of American investors.

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Ronald Mangravite