You have Ireland, and then you have the fantasy of Ireland, treasured by those not Irish but wishing they were. That gap, between emerald dream and gritty, often hopeless, reality, underlies the venerable play Stones in His Pockets, playing through Feb. 11 at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Company in Princeton. As a person with Irish antecedents back into the mist, I, biased, liked it a lot, most when it was grittiest.
Two wondrous Irish guys, Garrett Lombard and Aaron Monaghan, play Charlie and Jake – and all the other many roles. Both guys are great, just great, though Monaghan gets my nod for range and pathos.
It's the hardscrabble 1990s, and an epic Hollywood flick is being shot in a County Kerry town, starring world-famous leading lady Caroline Giovanni (played with startling persuasiveness by the strapping Lombard). Many of the locals are being hired at 40 pounds a day as extras. In the background hulks the legend of The Quiet Man, that lush, loving, ridiculous Technicolor-green 1952 John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara film, shot on location and as treacly an American Irish schmaltzfest as ever there was. Charlie and Jake thus begin their brief film careers with great expectations. Lombard and Monaghan, sometimes with hilarity, sometimes with sorrow, play everyone: the director, the star, the crew, the crowd, the priest, old guy Mickey Riordan (one of the last surviving extras from The Quiet Man!), the drug addict, everyone.
Beautifully directed by Lindsay Posner, much of Stones is very funny, but fantasy is cruel. Hollywood has its fantasy of the Irish, and they have their fantasies of Hollywood. Guess which one wins. In Hollywood hands, fantasy equals exploitation for profit, abuse of people's real lives. As their daily work continues, Charlie and Jake bear the humiliation of "playing Irish." As the lord and lady of the manor ride by, they are to doff their caps and cower; when the hero and heroine wed, they are to yell hurrah. And, of course, being Irish, they're expected to jig and whoop and holler, and in a side-splitting sequence, they do.
Jake even gets invited to Ms. Giovanni's trailer, occasioning much eye-rolling from his mates. But all she wants is for Jake to read her lines aloud so she can perfect her Irish accent. He refuses, indignant.
Someone else is hurt worse. Their old school chum Sean Harkin, afflicted with lack of future, tries to confront Giovanni and gets thrown off the set. In playwright Marie Jones' deft structure, we see that Jake and Charlie are in fact not central characters. And yet they will suffer, as will their town and everyone they know. Jake loses the stars in his eyes first; Charlie holds on longer.
In an exceedingly droll way, these two get their revenge; I won't tell you how. Good on McCarter, good on Lombard and Monaghan, for stamping the smiles on us as vividly as the tears. Ireland speaks.