Movies about movies, plays about plays, movies about plays and plays about movies: They're seductive halls of mirrors, spangled with cultural reflections and refractions, and ready-made metaphors about reality and illusion. There's the fascination of what is on the screen or stage versus what goes on backstage, and the built-in theatricality of the characters: producers, directors and especially actors. Stones In His Pockets, a comic play centering on extras during a Hollywood movie shoot in rural Ireland, plays with all these themes, and adds some of its own.
First produced in 1999, Stones In His Pockets won Best Comedy awards during its four-year London run, succeeded by productions in all the British Isles and throughout Europe. A five-month Broadway run in 2001 was followed by a U.S. touring version. The play has one dominating feature: only two actors play 15 different characters between them.
The Redwood Curtain production now on stage at the Arcata Playhouse features Gary Sommers and James Hitchcock playing Charlie and Jake, two young men past their first failures (a video store gone bust, a disappointing sojourn in America). They're working as extras, as most others in the town are - some of whom Sommers and Hitchcock also play, along with various members of the film crew, its director, and its female sex symbol star.
Hitchcock and Sommers sketch these characters in swift succession, so for the audience, keeping them sorted is a task. But when the characters become more familiar, the effect is sometimes surreal in the more frenetic sections of the second act - at times I had to remind myself there were just two actors up there.
Simply to physically perform all this is an admirable achievement, yet the play demands more. For all the quick comic sketches of familiar types and targets, this play is not a farce, nor simply a satire. Charlie and Jake are meant to engage our sympathies as characters as they respond to events, evaluate their pasts and change to meet their futures. For the most part, Hitchcock and Sommers succeed in this as well.
Yet there is more. By making the movie's extras the stars of this play, a set of variations on the dream versus reality theme is engaged (some of which are spelled out in some thesis-statement speeches in Act 2). The basic situation might resonate with local audiences: two young men in an economically dying rural community, dreaming bigger dreams, coming up against the limitations of their home town and the self-involved hypocrisy of the powerful larger world, as well as their own self-subverting feelings. Expressed geographically, culturally and financially, it's about class in a world where fate seems to be either stardom or oblivion.
But this play is set in Ireland, written by a Belfast playwright for Irish actors, skilled in the accents that Irish and English audiences recognize for what they say about geography and class. The play even talks about accents in that way. In this production, one of the actors has an uncertain command of accents, while the other's brogue was so thickly authentic-sounding that it was hard to always understand. Since characters were rendered with few words, this blunted their effectiveness, and limited the satiric humor as well as meaning. So in several important respects, the accents are a bridge too far for both actors and audience.
I saw this production in preview, so it's hard to know what other problems to attribute to the shakedown cruise, the conception of the production or to the play itself. There seemed to be little dramatic shape and pace beyond the whirl of characters, and so (for example) the dramatic announcement at the end of the first act about one of many now-you-see-him, now-you-don't characters (the one with stones in his pocket) didn't really do its job of enticing us to want to know what would happen after intermission.
Stones In His Pocket is by Marie Jones, who got her start with a company formed to provide more roles for women - ironically, this play for two men is her biggest hit. She's also been an actress, and a Hollywood movie extra in Ireland. The UK touring show has its own website, which proclaims: "Universally loved by all who see it, Stones In His Pockets has a disarming simplistic charm all of its own." I'm not often disarmed by simplistic charm, and I'm not sure this play deserves this Freudian slip of a judgment. But for all its complex or simple insights and its sharp observations, for me this version lacked compelling dramatic (and comic) coherence. The performances, however admirable, weren't powerful enough to compensate.
This Redwood Curtain production was directed by Peggy Metzger, with costumes by Kristen Gould, lighting by Michael Burkhart, sound by John Turney and choreography (yes, a Riverdance) by Katie Kitchen. It's at the Arcata Playhouse Thursdays through Saturdays until Nov. 21, with a matinee on the 15th.
Coming Up: NCRT opens A Christmas Carol Nov. 19.
The Random Acts of Comedy improv group performs at Arcata Theatre Lounge on alternate Thursdays, beginning Nov. 19.