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Conleth Hill and Seán Campion in Stones in His Pockets
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's not at all surprising that Stones in His Pockets won the 2001 Olivier Award for Best Comedy, nor is it surprising that one of its actors won the Olivier Award for Best Actor. A tour de force in comic showmanship, Marie Jones' play centers on two local extras in a Hollywood movie being shot in rural Ireland. Actually, the play seemingly boasts a cast of thousands--but they're all played by the same two actors, the bountifully talented pair of Conleth Hill and Seán Campion, both of whom traveled with the production across The Pond to Broadway's Golden Theatre.

As it starts off, Stones in His Pockets is weighted down by an overly precious and not-terribly-funny voiceover that mimics coming attractions and local advertisements in an Irish movie theater. Once the two actors eventually arrive on stage, however, the real fun begins. Hill is Charlie, a happy-go-lucky guy who harbors a dream of selling his screenplay. Campion is Jake, a ruggedly handsome, serious sort who has vague hopes of becoming a real actor. All of the action swirls around these two characters--and there is plenty of action, ranging from a possible affair between Jake and the sexy star of the film (played to hilarious perfection by Hill) to a possible strike by the extras on the final day of shooting.

On the set we meet the First AD, the director, a security guard, an old geezer who prides himself on being the last surviving extra from the 1952 John Ford film The Quiet Man, a drug addict, and more. Hill and Campion slip in and out of these personae in an intricately written, deftly directed fashion that leaves you awestruck. Without props, significant costume changes, wigs, or even lighting cues, the actors morph into the various characters like the magicians they really are.

Stones in His Pockets is mostly fun and games through the first act, but the play takes a sudden, dark turn with an off-stage death. Rather than give too much of the story away, suffice to say that the shift in tone is jarring. The gravitas that the playwright seems to be reaching for remains out of her grasp. Curiously, when these scenes are played as dark comedy, the heavier stuff still gets laughs; but, when we're meant to take it straight, it feels forced. Despite this stumble, the amazing performances carry the day. In particular, Conleth Hill uses his entire body to create one character after another. He establishes a walk and an attitude for the female star's bodyguard that is immediately recognizable and totally hilarious. He even gets a laugh during the inspired curtain calls, when he and Campion take a series of bows in their various personae. Both actors are exceptional--but Hill is on a par with John Leguizamo, which is as praiseworthy as we get.

The director, Ian McElhinney, might be easily overlooked in this enterprise, but his tight and precise staging is what makes the actors' quicksilver changes of character possible without the entire play spinning out of control. Every move is choreographed to take Campion and Hill from one creation to the next. Happily, though, the play is not about the acting; it's about the characters portrayed, and the conflicts they must endure. The themes that emerge are familiar postscripts for believing in your dreams, leavened with an abiding understanding that the attempt to make those dreams come true can break your heart.

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