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by Michael Bowen

Two men, beige in clothing and temperament, one with a distractingly odd hat. Their Irish accents are thick, their comedy is broad, the backdrop's uninspired, and the two actors, confusingly, flash out of one character and into another, repeatedly. A bit hard to get our bearings in this one.

That's the beginning of Stones in His Pockets (at Interplayers through Sept. 27), and it seems inauspicious. But sometime around the middle of Act One, Jake Quinn and Charlie Conlon, mere extras in a big-time Hollywood movie being filmed in small-time County Kerry, start to relax at the local pub after a long day of slogging through the mud and muck. They've been bossed around by one assistant director after another.

By this point, Craig Dingle and Michael Weaver have each played several of the 15 characters they'll eventually portray. Then, of all the gin joints in the world, into this particular pub and gin joint walks Caroline Giovanni (representing some mega-wattage celebrity like Julia Roberts) -- a character also played by Weaver. Just as our boyo Jake is about to put the moves on the movie star, into the pub stumbles Sean Harkin, the local angry young man who's perpetually pissed off (in the American sense) and usually just pissed (per the U.K. usage). Dingle slips out of Jake and into Sean with ferocious intensity -- and from this point forward, with the energy of the only two actors we'll see all night accelerated, these Stones begin to soar not plummet.

The multiple role-playing here is more meaningful than in, say, Greater Tuna, where the comedy remains broad and the enjoyment only goes as deep as the crossing of gender lines: Look at that silly man acting like a woman, we think, and then there's not much more to say. But Stones is more polished. The oscillation of pessimism and optimism is embodied first in one character, then another, so that we begin to see links of common humanity.

Some examples: At one point, Weaver plays a horndog who keeps salivating over a beautiful woman, declaring over and over how much he'd "like to give her one" - and then begins to impersonate that very woman, showing us both sides of the sexual transaction. Dingle plays young Sean's rage as an extension of the cynicism of Jake, his "home" character. Later on, when Jake is at his most despondent, he runs into Brother Gerard, who taught Sean years ago. Suddenly, in flashback, Dingle transforms himself into the innocent and hopeful eight-year-old Sean once was. Used to be, you see, that Sean saw value in dairy farming and even in the usefulness of cows; now he only sees the shit they produce.

Both actors excel at their multiple impersonations. Dingle is particularly good as one old codger around town, "the last surviving extra on The Quiet Man," the 1952 film that has an Irish John Wayne struggling for the hand of Maureen O'Hara. Weaver doesn't just camp it up as the famous actress, either -- he finds her complexity and confusion, just as he does in the angry second-act revelation by the ever-buoyant Charlie.

Director Holli Hornlien coached her two actors through a number of inventive ways to scurry in and out of characters. But she's done more than that, too. She and her artistic and production staffs have devised a coup de theatre for the first-act curtain that'll make you sit up and pay attention to the mess of pain these Irish folks are in.

Set designer Dean Bourland (whose departure from Interplayers will be much lamented) has framed his Irish countryside with banners drooping from the rafters -- except they're not just banners. In this tale about movie-making, appropriately, they become over-large strips of celluloid.

It's because of Hollywood that the plot of Stones eventually turns in on itself: Jake and Charlie, supernumeraries in the movie of life, seize an opportunity to become more than just a couple of extras. Out of some depressing circumstances, they pluck considerable hope.

Some playgoers will dismiss Stones in His Pockets -- seen here in its West Coast premiere -- because some of its characters look at life and decide to give it the finger. Marie Jones's play, moreover, has its share of sex and drugs, of rudeness and cruelty and despair, and plenty of salty language. But it also conveys valuable messages about compassion and courage -- all that, and with just two actors, minimal costumes, a few light changes and some imaginary but quite useful cows.

But by the end of Stones in His Pockets, we're not being flipped off. We're being embraced.

Publication date: 09/11/03

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