The setting of Marie Jones’ 1996 comedic play Stones in His Pockets (through May 22) may be Ireland, but its subject has never felt closer. Its sense of humor, as well as its touches of sadness, feel pretty familiar in an Atlanta that has lately thrown open its arms to Hollywood.
Atlantans can now tell you it’s a bit of a mixed bag when Hollywood comes to town. Of course, there’s the excitement of sudden proximity to movie stars, the coolness of witnessing film production in motion and the frisson of having our everyday places become settings for movies. Film production brings money and work, and there’s a silly, but somehow indismissable sense that any lucky, hopeful, local someone — maybe even you or me — might be plucked out for sudden fame.
But once the novelty wears off, we see that Hollywood stars remain in a bubble (even when they’re standing right nearby or speaking to us, they’re often in a sort of bubble), production sites mean traffic and hassles of other kinds. And the work that arrives? It’s often the low-paying, low-status sort — even moderately insulting — such as coffee-fetching or standing by on set all day as a lowly extra while the massive machinery that turns other people into stars and billionaires grinds on.
Jones’ play centers on two young Irish men who work as extras on the set of a cheesy Hollywood movie filming on location in a small, picturesque village in Ireland. Jake (RJ Allen) has just returned from a dead-end stint in the States, and Charlie (Matthew Welch) is still reeling from his failed venture running a video store that succumbed to a more corporate, comprehensive competitor.
They bond in the empty time that extras often have to pass on set, and though their lives and hardships are resolutely modern, they both dress in tweedy costumes as colorful Irish locals. Arís Theatre, Atlanta’s Irish theater, gives the play a resonant and smart production in, of all places, a television studio (the theater regularly produces its shows in an unused studio at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Midtown location, an especially fitting site for this particular performance).
Everyone in town, it seems, is also working as an extra, and in Jones’ play the two lead actors play all the roles, from a wizened old man with broad experience as a film extra (he proudly claims to be the oldest surviving extra from the mother of all Hollywood Ireland-set films The Quiet Man) to the film’s over-it-all Hollywood starlet to the director and various crew members.
This funny picture is complicated by the suicide of a troubled local boy, seemingly brought on by his poor treatment by some of the Hollywood visitors. Jake, a close relative to the young man, can’t quite articulate the reasons, but he nonetheless carries a lingering sense that somehow Hollywood itself — its access to our dreams and its unbridgeable distance from us — is somehow partly responsible for his young relative’s despair and misery.
Part of the fun of the show derives from watching the two talented actors shift between the multiple and varied roles. Though the parts are many (this is a film crew arriving in a small town after all) the narrative remains clear and each of the characters pops vividly to life as an individual. It’s a funny and delightful piece, given a smart and appealing production here. And in the end, there’s an element of disquiet and haunting sadness to the humor. It’s a good time for sure, but the play’s sudden flashes of anger may also occasionally — as they say — hit close to home.