Lyric's "Stones in His Pockets": Don't 'Ave a Cow

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.


New Rep's "Lungs": Airing Views on Carbon Footprints

From the first line of New Rep’s current production of “Lungs”, the Boston area premiere of the 2011 comedy by Duncan MacMillan, it’s clear that this work will be a breath of fresh air. The question, “A baby?”, is the launching pad for a hilariously human “conversation” between two unmarried partners, identified only as M (Nael Nacer, so indelibly memorable for this season’s opener, “Kite Runner”) and W (Liz Hayes, so wonderful in “Collected Stories”). As meticulously directed by Associate Artistic Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary (“Collected Stories”, “DollHouse”, “Fully Committed”), this talented pair of actors manage, in the short span of just shy of ninety minutes, to cover a lot of philosophical ground and a lifetime of perennial inquisition.

To birth or not to birth, that is the question. M has proposed, not marriage, but the possibility of their having a child together, or at least that they have the conversation, a word that appears more than once. W’s initial reaction ricochets from excitement to uncertainty to angst in a stream of hyperconsciousness that is an aural wonder to behold. Hayes nails this manic yuppie type, who might in a more sober work be in serious need of bipolar meds. Nacer holds his own in a less showy role that demands (and he delivers) an incredible mix of reactions that range all over the emotional map, so rapidly that it’s hard to take your eyes off him. O’Leary has fine-tuned them to the point where they seem utterly natural and believable as they constantly almost finish one another’s almost sentences. MacMillan’s machine-gun dialogue is almost Pinteresque, if Pinter had this depth of wild humor. And, beneath and beyond this wit are some fundamentally critical issues.

The basic dilemma is, of course, whether having children in an overpopulated world is justifiable or ethical, for such self-described “good people” as these. By the end of the play, there are several other topics explored, some universal, some intensely personal, from the future of the planet, global warming and one’s influence on the environment, to fidelity, commitment, miscarriage, abortion, and even death. The truly astonishing fact is that, while there are quite somber moments, this is more fun than a ton of carbon footprints.

As usual with New Rep, the technical credits are outstanding . The Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue is right on Target, or perhaps more Gap or Banana Republic. The Sound Design (and some original gasps of music) by Arshan Gailus is restrained but effective. And, though MacMillan calls for “no sets, no props, no miming” for his play, Scenic and Lighting Designer Jen Rock has produced a wry background of bronchi and bronchioles lit with ever-changing colors, a perfect visual metaphor for what transpires (or respires) before them on stage.

While the first line of the play is a question, the last line is a statement (perhaps even the answer): “I love you.” When all is said and done, this may be what all the fuss was about, the need to find, share, and propagate love. This vital “Lungs” deserves to run at full capacity.  




"The Irish..and How They Got That Way": with a Little Bit of Pluck

The musical revue “The Irish..and How They Got That Way”, now being presented at the intimate downstairs Davis Square Theater in Somerville, begins rather unpromisingly with a medley of a half dozen Irish songs, most very familiar, though quite well sung, threatening to be another one of those dreadfully dull “juke box” almost plot-less (and often lifeless) musicals. Ah, but that’s where the magic of the late playwright Frank McCourt (also author of “Angela’s Ashes”) comes in. Before we even realize it, the songs have become integral parts of a moving tapestry that traces the historical pathways of the Irish on both sides of the pond. What first seemed to be yet another of those ubiquitous ethnic celebrations that inevitably appear every Saint Patrick’s Day, instead evolved into a tightly constructed and focused presentation of how the Irish “got that way”, and, along the way, how the English “got that way” as well.

Directed by Danielle Paccione, who helmed this work in Philadelphia in 2001, this production consists of that entire company, including Meredith Beck, Andrew Crowe, Jon Dykstra, Gregg Hammer, Janice Landry and Irene Molloy. The company as a whole, as well as in individual solos, duets, and every other conceivable combination and permutation, thus seems perfectly comfortable with their roles, requiring all of them to sing, act, dance and play a variety of musical instruments, (often simultaneously), including an introduction on the piano (by Dykstra, who is also credited with Musical Direction), flute (Beck), violin (Crowe), and assorted percussion instruments (Hammer) as well as guitars, mandolin, and even a dulcimer (Molloy). The songs chosen to illustrate the history of a people range from old chestnuts like “Danny Boy” (Hammer, in a beautifully acted rendition dramatically lit by Lighting Designer Matthew Breton, portraying the aching homesickness for the Ireland so many had to leave behind), to the less familiar “Carrick Fergus” (Beck) and “Fields of Athenry” (Landry), to the surprising conclusion of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which speaks for itself. Even the predicable Cohan medley (“Give My Regards to B’way”, “Over There”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”) seems reinvented here, aided by the excellent choreography by local artist Sebastian Goldberg.

McCourt has blended song and story so seamlessly and poetically that we feel by the end of the show that we’ve gained new insight into the Irish culture and history, their music and their humor. (For example, “The English conquered the world to escape their own cooking”, or the old lady when asked whether she believed in fairies: “I do not...but they’re there.”) There are also frequent allusions to the troubles and persecutions the Irish endured, including a quote from the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot, about the potato famine (a misnomer, as McCourt points out, since a great deal of food was produced during the period, but exported to the then Mother Country), and the early days of their emigration to the States, with their welcoming “No Irish Need Apply”. As McCourt quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart”. In the meantime, whether you’re Irish or not, this wondrous production will break your heart as it makes your spirits soar.