Ah, ‘tis that time of year when we‘re blessed with theater with a certain ethnic identity (e.g. “The Irish…and How They Got That Way”). In that spirit, Lyric Stage is currently presenting “Stones in His Pockets”. First performed in Belfast in 1999, then later that same year in London (where it ran for three years, winning the Olivier Award as Best New Comedy and Evening Standard Award as Best Comedy), it transferred to New York in 2001 with the same cast (earning three Tony Award nominations, for its two lead actors and director), where it ran for almost six months. Here directed by Courtney O’Connor, with Phil Tayler (“Avenue Q”, “Marry Me a Little”, the upcoming “On the Town”) as Jake Quinn and Daniel Berger-Jones (“Nicholas Nickelby”, “Shipwrecked!”) as Charlie Conlon, this exhilarating two-hander remains a pas de deux tour de farce. Juggling fifteen different characters, with their varying personas, attitudes and accents over the course of 100 minutes including intermission, is a challenging task. In the wrong hands, this could be deadly. Fortunately, Tayler and Berger-Jones are extraordinary at portraying the two main protagonists, as well as the rest of the zany cast. Berger-Jones does a devastating take on film star Caroline Giovanni, and Tayler nails the part of Mickey the sole surviving local extra from “The Quiet Man”, among others.
The satirical tale revolves around the arrival of a Hollywood film crew in a sleepy County Kerry village to film a period story entitled “The Quiet Valley”, a romance. How their presence affects the townspeople as they sign up as extras, and the filmmakers themselves, from English director to insecure stars to incompetent dialect coach, as they interact with the locals, is the focus of this work by author Marie Jones, who has stated that her play’s subtext is “the whole disintegration of rural Ireland”. The film crew’s presence is the catalyst for this, including the death of a youth rejected by the leading lady, as alluded to in the title of the play (a demise surprisingly whimsical at first, in context). The hopes and aspirations of the townfolk are inflamed by the idea of potential celebrity and rewards reaped, as the priest in the town parish declares: “Imagination can be a damned curse in this country”.
That imagination is ably illuminated by the fifteen characters played by Tayler and Berger-Jones, who display an uncanny ability to move from one role to another to yet another within two blinks of an eye. They’re aided by Scenic Designer Matthew Whiton, Costume Designer Elizabetta Polito, Lighting Designer Margo Cadell, and Sound Designer Brendan F. Doyle, all of whom have created a spare but effective canvas for playwright Jones’ vision. “Stones in His Pockets” has a seemingly bottomless trunk full of goodies, thanks to Jones’ own boundless imagination, which in her case is anything but a “damned curse”. The first act serves as a setup for the poignancy of the second act . One is reminded, as with the aforementioned “The Irish…and How They Got That Way”, of the sad-but-wise aphorism by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart”. The play ends with our intrepid heroes envisioning their own cinematic take on life in their community (with a happier ending in reel life for that youth in the title), opening with a bucolic shot of cows filling every inch of the screen. Not unlike Jones’ play, the potential for artistic brilliance for their film lies in its udder simplicity.