At the center of any movie are its stars -- they get all the attention, the good jokes, the great passions Not so in Marie Jones's play Stones in His Pockets, where the geometry of moviemaking has been turned inside out. Here, the nameless extras stand center stage, and we get to experience the movies from the margins. And the Alley Theatre's rich production of this latest ballyhooed Irish import shows that the gilded film industry doesn't shine so brightly at the edges.
There have been plenty of satires about the high-gloss veneer of Hollywood, but there are elements of Jones's script that make it plucky and fresh. Though her take on Hollywood is filled with stereotypical prima donnas who flounce about the set making ridiculous demands, Jones lands these silly characters in a pristine environment where their bad behavior has grim consequences. Set in a tiny Irish village in County Kerry, where the impoverished residents are willing to work long days for low wages, her script captures the effects of the Hollywood machinery on an entire community. In this story, Hollywood operates like a colonizing country, bringing the locals to their knees in service of the almighty film. Even worse, like all colonizers, the film crew eventually brings tragedy to the villagers, whose fragile dreams are shaped by celluloid fantasies.
The strange and vaguely disturbing story is made even more powerful by its execution. Utilizing a strategy that is becoming more and more familiar in contemporary theater, Jones has two actors playing all the parts of what seems like an enormous cast. Dynamic and mesmerizing Jeffrey Bean and Todd Waite morph from pouty movie star to craggy old-timer with the twist of a cap and the flip of a wrist. The effect is so wow-inspiring that any hackneyed Hollywood ideas hovering over Jones's script are quickly forgiven.
Stones in His Pockets
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through May 18; 713-228-8421. $40-$45
Movie extras Charlie Conlon (Bean) and Jake Quinn (Waite) are the touchstones of the story. We first meet Conlon standing at the lunch cart asking for an extra slice of lemon meringue pie. It's an apt introduction, as the always joking Conlon is desperately hungry for more sweetness in his life. Working for 40 quid a day and living in a trailer, he's got nothing to his name but the movie script he's written, which he keeps folded tight in his back pocket. Conlon is a likable bloke with a dark history. Bean's warm, tender eyes and easy, crooked grin turn him into the sort of heartbreaking everyman you want to see win, even if you know his road through life will always be hard.
Waite's Quinn is the angrier of the two. Tall and lanky, Quinn is picked out one night by the beautiful American movie star Caroline Giovanni (Bean), who's known for "going ethnic" on the set. But Quinn is not just a pretty face, he's proud and smart and getting angrier about the condescension of the foreign film crew. He starts out gawking at the filmmakers only to end up utterly disenchanted -- almost.
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But besides these tenderhearted working men who comment on the powers that be, Bean and Waite also play the smaller roles that swirl through the narrative like spirits. Some are little more than caricatures: Bean's Caroline swishes across the stage with a scarf thrown over her shoulders when she wants to seduce a man, and stomps her feet in spoiled frustration when a certain local doesn't want her back. And Waite's wizened-faced old Micky bears the distinction of being the oldest surviving extra from the 1950s classic The Quiet Man.
Waite is also powerful as the 17-year-old drug addict Sean, a local boy who's been unmade by the crippling economy and his own pipe dreams. In an oblique homage to fellow Irishwoman Virginia Woolf, Jones has the despairing Sean kill himself at the end of Act I by filling his pockets with stones and walking out into the lovely waters at the village edge.
Act II flounders a bit because of her heavy-handed choice, which is mired in some questionable polemics. The raging Quinn blames the movies for the boy's suicide, arguing that they filled him with unreachable dreams. A weary priest says that "imagination can be a curse in this country." Of course, it is imagination that ends up saving Conlon and Quinn, sort of.
The ending is so oddly upbeat that it's hard to know how Jones wants us to take it. Still, nothing can detract from the power of these performances, directed with understated wry humor by Joe Brancato. Tender, funny and smart, this is a consummate production for any admirer of the art of acting.