"Stones in His Pockets” is one of those plays that weighs in as so funny, in tone and dialogue, and so full of comically bragging, complaining, or preening characters, it comes as a surprise that it is serious at its core, to the point, at its climax, of being heartbreaking.
Playwright Marie Jones takes advantage of the flippancy, irony, rationalization, and self-deprecation in Irish humor to provide an air of levity. But underneath her jocular sparring and quick sardonic comebacks lie a hundred examples of class difference, privilege and servility, and economic realities that border on the desperate and even tragic.
In the hand of deft Irish actors Garrett Lombard and Aaron Monaghan, who perform about a dozen parts, director Lindsay Posner’s production of “Stones” for McCarter Theater plays fluidly and entertaining for laughs.
Even so, there is satire behind the lampooning, especially in Lombard’s mincingly condescending portrait of a beautiful Hollywood star, and genuine anger and justified disapproval in Monaghan’s matter-of-fact primary character, Jake Quinn.
Quinn, like Lombard’s Charlie Conlon, is an extra in a big-budget American film, “The Quiet Valley.” It uses a picturesque County Kerry village and its hardscrabble denizens to provide scenic splendor and a note of native realism to its rather formulaic love story about a man of the people who woos and weds the daughter of a venal landowner and restores local order by returning land to displaced tenant farmers.
The real village is so depressed, Jake and Charlie are grateful when film crews move in and pay the extras 40 Irish pounds a day, as big a fortune to them as the $6 million received by stars Caroline Giovanni and Kurt Steiner.
No matter that a fellow extra, who has the distinction of being the last surviving extra of the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara classic, “The Quiet Man,” drinks up his 40 pounds each evening and 20 more on top of it, so he is always in debt to the pubkeeper, or that a drug-reduced villager is refused work in the film, which knocks him into a sad tizzy exacerbated by a brusque rebuff from the female star.
The difference between the Americans and Brits making the movie and the Irish extras populating it is made abundantly clear, and while Jones is clear that reality is what it is, she makes it seem a shame that Jake and Charlie are valued less and struggle more than the stars, their director, and the male and female production assistants who herd the locals as they go through their scenes.
Jones also underscores that Jake, Charlie, and their cohorts will be without means of income when the movie folks leave while the actors and such will move on to their next project.
Pathos rules, but comedy prevails because the characters express themselves in gibes, sarcasm, and colorful description.
Except for one confused and combative character, Lombard and Monaghan find the outsized vanity, self-importance, or beleaguered abruptness of their characters and aim for laughs and not for anything introspective or deep.
Director Posner’s production is quite canny in the way it exudes drollness while letting the poignant come obviously and ominously through. All is calibrated to make fun of the tedious and utilitarian side of being a movie extra while revealing the individuals Jake and Charlie are at heart — relatively young men seeking and fearing their futures.
The difference is that Charlie is more optimistic than Jake, who has been wizened by a sojourn to make a living and a name for himself in New York.
Both actors are marvelous. And while Lombard is almost always comic, Monaghan gets to branch out more and gain audience respect and support. He makes the audience feel Jake’s indignation and clear-eyed assessment of his role on the film set and brings home Jones’s point about the poor getting what they can while they can.
Posner provides his own witty touches. As in many Irish plays of the last 30 years, cows figure prominently in “Stones in His Pockets.” They are economic tools, part of the general landscape, and unknowing witnesses to the terrible. And the end of his McCarter staging, Posner, taking a cue from Jones’s script offers what is akin to movie credits, cows being a prominent part of them, in a way that ties cleverly back to the last scenes of the play.
“Stones in His Pockets” needs a single-unit set, but the bright green artificial grass set designer Beowulf Boritt uses as his main staging area evokes the lovely scenery Jake and Charlie banter about. Lighting designer Japhy Weideman adds mood and texture by making the stage, mostly representing the fields where extras do their takes, sunlit or overcast in turn. Lindsay Jones also contributes grandly by providing background music to accompany the extras’ scenes. It smacks of actual movie scoring and qualifies simultaneously as a spoof and as an honest dramatic background to characters’ shots that involve tasks such as digging turf or lighting a warming fire.
Stones in His Pockets, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 11. $25 to $97.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.