Brass in Pocket

Giving two actors 15 parts takes brass, but Stones in His Pockets does just that.

It must be something about September. Last week, I reviewed The Turn of the Screw, in which one of the actors played four parts, and all the acting was terrific. Now I've just seen another play in which two versatile performers play 15 parts, and again the acting is downright splendid. The play is Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets, directed by Todd Olson, who also happens to be American Stage's new artistic director. So this production answers a couple of questions: Yes, Olson can really direct, and yes, his first programming choice is a fine one. Not that there aren't any weaknesses in the play — I'll get to those later — but for the most part Stones in His Pockets is a first-rate comedy about a silly group of characters who become all the more endearing the longer they're on stage. And as to the show's two actors, Brian Webb Russell and Christopher Swan, well, you could hardly ask for more artistry. Add Abigail Hart Gray's attractive modernist set and Amy J. Cianci's eloquent costumes, and you've got a delightful entertainment, presented with real elan — and not a bad start to the Olson era. Because author Jones throws us right into the action, you may find it difficult at first to distinguish the many Stones characters from one another. But this confusion soon passes, and it becomes abundantly clear that we're watching the story of Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn (Russell and Swan), two locals from a small Irish town who've become extras in a movie being filmed there by an American studio.

Important also are certain other characters, especially Clem Curtis (Russell), the film's British director, Caroline Giovanni (Russell), the beautiful American movie star, Aisling (Swan), the frenetic assistant director, and Mickey (Swan), the septuagenarian townie extra.

The play is more about character than action, but there are two plotlines of some significance. First, there's the excitement when movie star Giovanni seems romantically interested in unprepossessing Jake, asks him back to her hotel for a drink and then to her trailer for coffee. And then there's the crisis caused when 17-year-old Sean Harkin drowns himself, perhaps in response to being rebuffed by the film company.

Whereas the romantic plot affects few of the play's characters, the suicide involves everyone, from the townfolk who feel obligated to go to Sean's funeral to the movie people who can't afford to lose their extras for a day. Most of the pathos in the play is about young Harkin's death and the reactions of the filmmakers and townies. The townies are stricken; the film crew is worried about deadlines and crowd scenes. But will the film crew accept its responsibility?

What's wonderful about Russell and Swan is how very distinct they make the various characters they play and how they consistently manage to find the humor in each one. So Russell's Charlie is a likable loser, his Caroline Giovanni is boldly trying to be a little sincere (and not too vain), and his director Curtis is a mostly sensible man who's all too aware of the invoice price of chaos. Swan's Jake Quinn, on the other hand, is a man of principle with a ridiculous streak, his Aisling is an overactive young woman who can't have a thought without expressing it bodily, and his Mickey is an old geezer who thinks himself more clever than he really is.

Part of the joy of Stones in His Pockets is watching Russell and Swan change parts every few seconds, often without a costume or wig change. And once we become used to the 15 characters, there's also the thrill of recognizing now this one, now that, finding that we really can keep them straight, and coming to appreciate the techniques used by the actors to separate one from another. Director Olson deserves accolades for keeping the action moving swiftly, and for getting 15 clearly distinct performances from his two actors. As I've said, Russell — whom I've never seen on stage before — is simply superb. But this is also the best acting I've ever seen Swan do, suggesting that the director's impact has been positive, to say the least.

But now about those weaknesses in the script: I think the most serious concerns the suicide of Sean Harkin. I have nothing against the introduction of a somber note into a comedy — most good comedies are serious anyway — but if Jones' dialogue is any indication, we're supposed to conclude that the American film company — and, by extension, American power, wealth, arrogance — are culpable for mortally bruising Harkin's self-image. Maybe this implication would find favor with an Irish audience, and maybe I'm too American to blame America for such a crime. But if you're not willing to lay the blame for Harkin's end at America's door — and I'm not — then the suicide has little significance in the context of the play, and doesn't deserve all the attention it gets. I also feel that Jones comes up short when she tries, late in Act Two, to give us a glimpse into Charlie's dark night of the soul. Finally, the end of the play is so fanciful, so unlikely, it seems a disappointment after the razor-sharp comedy we've become used to.

And just one more thing, a thought out of season: As in The Turn of the Screw, there's really no good, no organic reason individual actors should be playing multiple roles here. After all, if you want to show the contrast between a film crew rolling in money and the poor townies who work as extras, it makes absolutely no sense to have both townies and film people played by the same actors.

Of course, the real story here is economics, producers' budgets, and playwrights' sad realization that most theaters will turn away a 15-character script without even reading it. Speaking of which, have you seen the popular play Fully Committed? One actor plays 38 parts. Get used to it.

But enough about finance. Stones in His Pockets is a very amusing play, a tour de force of inspired acting and directing. Todd Olsen can be proud of having started his tenure at American Stage with this item.

And Mr. Russell and Mr. Swan can be proud of providing us so much hilarity — at such a speed.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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