McCarter Theatre Center presents Marie Jones’s ‘Stones in His Pockets’

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Charm counts for much in Stones in His Pockets, a slight comedy about two Irish nobodies swept up by the filming of a Hollywood epic in their sleepy County Kerry village. But Marie Jones's 1996 play has serious aspirations that neither the text nor Lindsay Posner's new production for McCarter Theatre Center fulfills.

Reaching for the stars with their feet on the ground. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)

Lucky stars

Those aspirations mirror the lives of quiet desperation lived by Charlie Conlon (Garrett Lombard) and Jake Quinn (Aaron Monaghan), both cast as extras in the hilariously hackneyed The Quiet Valley. (The fake movie title cannily evokes that most famous of Irish-set epics, The Quiet Man).

Film-besotted Charlie dreams of working as a screenwriter; he hopes his presence on the set might land his spec script in the right hands. Jake has recently returned to Ireland from New York, where his lofty ambitions never got him farther than tending bar on Ninth Avenue.

The two spend most of the first act bickering and bantering, their speech inflected with Celtic colloquialisms. (McCarter’s lobby is festooned with placards defining the unfamiliar argot — my favorite is “wanker tosser”). Through only mannerism changes, they also embody more than a dozen characters involved with the film’s production, shifting personae at breakneck speed.

Monaghan proves particularly lively as Mickey, who proudly boasts that he’s “the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man.” Lombard flattens his thick brogue to a lilting American affect for Caroline Giovanni, the flick’s glamorous but vacuous headliner.

Real performances, false characters

The combination of folksy dialogue, familiar personalities, and cultural touchstones initially produces a metric ton of blarney. Beowulf Boritt’s handsome set — a bucolic patch of countryside overrun by production crates — evokes the sense of disorientation felt by the seemingly simple locals, while Japhy Weideman’s lighting effectively telegraphs the passing of time and shifts in location. Jones gives us a pleasant enough slice of country life, equal parts endearing and risible.

But the play pivots toward something darker shortly before intermission; if the first half trades heavily in stock depictions, the second sets out to show the inner lives of the people behind them.

Here, Jones falters. This is partially due to the stereotypes that remain: while the Irish suddenly becomes founts of wisdom, Jones doubles down on a portrayal of industry folk as selfish, exploitative, and harmful. The locals shouldn’t be ridiculed, but it’s equally disingenuous to sanctify them.

The inciting incident for this tonal shift also trades heavily in Gaelic tropes. To comment on the fluctuating expectations and realities of Irish life, Jones subtly suggests that a return to bygone virtues and simpler times could solve some of the nation’s problems, thus ending the reliance on foreign cash the film crew represents. It’s a simplistic view, verging on condescension.

Lombard and Monaghan — both true sons of Ireland — provide an air of authenticity. But neither fully overcomes the deficits in character development that leave Charlie and Jake essentially two-dimensional. The men glide toward an impeccably engineered happy ending, but the audience still laughs at them as much as with them.

Posner tries to balance tragedy and comedy effectively, but the script’s lack of authentic give-and-take limits his abilities. In many ways, Stones in His Pockets reminds me of Caroline Giovanni’s attempt at mastering the Irish accent: it’s noble, but misguided and vaguely patronizing.

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