The Jig Is Up

Actors Theatre's Stones in His Pockets is something of a conundrum: It's a better-than-capably acted, expertly directed comedy that's never more than amusing. It's filled with goofy antics performed by silly characters (normally a winning combination in a comedy) who are often less than lovable. On opening night, this neatly produced trifle had many audience members giggling, but several others sneaking out at intermission. And, sorry to say, Stones in His Pockets had me counting the minutes until I could take my leave as well.

This is the sort of Broadway import that always finds a second life in regional theaters, where audiences line up for weeks to watch two actors playing 15 characters, which is this show's main conceit. The pretext for this pile of impersonations is Marie Jones' story about the filming of a fictional movie, The Quiet Valley, which is shooting on location in a small village in County Kerry, Ireland. Our heroes, Charlie and Jake, are two of several dozen extras paid to play caricatures of themselves in the film's crowd sequences and, because they're both bumpkins, one of them with a screenplay to peddle, they're overjoyed to be rubbing elbows with Hollywood movie people. But the suicide of a local laddie who didn't get cast as an extra in the film causes the villagers to reconsider their shallow ambitions, their tiny lives and the true value of the American dream.

The trouble could be that Jones has written a script that's generous to its actors but shortchanges its story. Built around the dozens of quick-change characterizations that are its raison d'être, the tale of two losers is lost to innumerable opportunities for them to morph into numerous other characters, none of them particularly likable. It doesn't help that Jones reaches too far and too often toward "poignant and touching" -- never a good idea in a slapstick comedy -- or that we've seen her O. Henry-esque ending (Charlie and Jake vow to tell "the real story" in a film called Stones in His Pockets) a dozen other times.

Whatever the reason, I quickly became bored with the "who am I now?" bit, and found myself wishing that I were watching Charlie and Jake's story in some less-flashy context. That said, I'll admit that Oliver Wadsworth (Charlie) and Kirk Jackson (Jake) are quick-change connoisseurs who glower, guffaw, scowl and dance their way through a two-hour performance with plenty of style. (The exception: Wadsworth's interpretation of Caroline, a movie star who appears in several scenes, was exasperating. Was she American? Brain-dead? Female? I was never entirely sure.) But by necessity, there's a shorthand to their characterizations, so that each person is played as a parody: The old Irish guy is a crotchety drunk; the Hollywood movie actress is small-minded and mean; the director is impatient and arrogant. These outré interpretations help delineate where one character begins and another ends, but leave little room for them to grow as the story progresses.

Jon Gentry directs with a confidence borne of frequent performances in multi-character programs like this one. His best trick is to distract us from an actor who's about to change characters, so that when we look back, there's another Irishman onstage. Even with all these presto-change-o shenanigans, I was less amused by the play than by the guy a couple of rows ahead of me who fell asleep during the first act, only to be awakened when his cell phone slid off his lap and began beeping. My delight in this bad behavior suggests that I'm easily amused; but if I were, I might have liked Stones in His Pockets a whole lot better.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela