The American dream has taken hold of a sleepy Irish town in Marie Jones’ 1996 play “Stones in His Pockets,” currently staged at the Yale Repertory Theatre by director Evan Yionoulis ’82 DRA ’85. A Hollywood film crew has come to shoot on location, upending the townspeople’s lives and infecting everyone with the desire to be rich and famous.
Two of these people are Charlie Conlon (Euan Morton) and Jake Quinn (Fred Arsenault). Cast as extras in the film, they “dig turf,” “look dispossessed” and, between takes, talk about their aspirations to be Somebodies. After all, the Somebodies very clearly have the power. There’s Simon, the first assistant director who constantly relays his orders through Aisling, his faithful and bossy subordinate. Then there is Clem, the anxious, flamboyant director, and Kurt Steiner, the hunky American actor. Above all, there is Caroline Giovanni, the narcissistic American starlet with sultry eyes and swaying hips. She is the queen bee on this set, engaging with the locals reluctantly, as if she belonged to a higher breed of human.
In reality, of course, she is just as human as everyone else. This is made clear by the fact that she — like Simon, Aisling, Clem, Kurt and every townsperson — is played by either Morton or Arsenault. In this respect, the play is a joy to watch: As the action moves from the cafeteria to Caroline’s dressing room, from the movie set to the local pub and back again, the two actors engage in impressive shape-shifting acrobatics. Their characters are diverse in speech and physicality, yet the movement between them is elegant and precise — never do we wonder who is speaking, or to whom. This ability to conjure up an entire world is almost magical; sometimes, in moments of rapid character changes, it is easy to forget that there are only two actors on stage.
Through it all, Charlie and Jake are our unambiguous protagonists. Though the play takes comic detours into other lives, our focus is on this pair of extras. Starry-eyed Charlie is the optimist of the two — he has a film script that is bound to get him noticed. “Doesn’t matter if you’re nobody,” he tells a skeptical Jake. “Talent is talent, and that wins out in the end.” But Jake isn’t so easily convinced. He has seen the inner workings of the Hollywood machine, and he knows that the path to the top is more nepotistic than meritocratic. Jake is also principled; he refuses to sacrifice his culture on the altar of fame. He will not be complicit in romanticizing Irish peasanthood to advance his own career, even when Caroline gives him the opportunity to do just that.
By the play’s conclusion, Charlie and Jake have decided to break from selfish, soulless Hollywood. They’ll make their own film! As the lights fade to black, they breathlessly plan its opening moments. The vision is uplifting, but pause to think about it, and you realize they are doomed to fail. Yet here we are not supposed to think. After dedicating nearly two hours to exposing the evils of our fame-driven capitalism, “Stones in His Pockets” neuters its own criticism, claiming implicitly that an evil system is no match for personal integrity.
But that is wrong. The system has money, power and status. It is hegemonic. To pretend otherwise is to falsely assuage. “Stones in His Pockets” should conclude with a vision of how to move forward; instead, Yionoulis’ production acts in service of the very evil it seems to diagnose. The worst part is that it is so entertaining in the process.