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Authentic Irish charm in Center Stage production of 'Stones in His Pockets'

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

6:55 PM EST, January 24, 2014

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No one can beat the Irish when it comes to spinning a yarn. And when they weave threads of satire and bittersweetness in between the humor, we’re talking a little bit of verbal heaven.

"Stones in His Pockets" is a cool example. The witty work from 1996 by Belfast-born playwright Marie Jones receiving an exhilarating production at Center Stage, is, above all, a great yarn. If you only heard the lines spoken — on the radio, say — this story about the collision of a rural Irish town and a big, dumb movie company from the States would easily spring to life.

What Jones has done so cleverly is retain the intimate nature of storytelling by eschewing a large cast and putting the whole saga into the hands and versatile voices of a single pair of actors.

The idea of having performers switch rapidly among multiple roles is not new, but Jones uses the device with an imaginative touch. You can quickly forget about the tour de force elements involved and just soak in the scenario and its various layers.

Which is not to downplay the virtuosity displayed here by Clinton Brandhagen and Todd Lawson, both making their Center Stage debuts. As the story unfolds, these guys burrow deeply and brilliantly into a rich variety of personalities, transforming themselves vocally and physically at the drop of an Irish cap.

And through it all, they never lose track of their principal roles — two hard-luck locals, Jake (Lawson) and Charlie (Brandhagen), who meet while working as extras for the movie.

Jake and his new buddy are star-struck by the perfectly hollow, but gorgeous, actress named Caroline Giovanni who has top billing in the project. Jake even ends up getting close to her, although not in the way he, or Charlie, anticipates.

The two men have a little trouble taking things seriously, except the 40 pounds a day they get paid (the play predates Ireland's adoption of the Euro, which also explains an old reference to Hugh Grant). They can't help but get the giggles on camera, a scene Lawson and Brandhagen carry off to particularly amusing effect.

The little we learn about "The Quiet Valley," the cinematic epic being made on the Emerald Isle, certainly sounds laughable, especially the happy ending (as the film director notes, "People don’t go to the movies to be depressed; that’s what theater is for").

What the American visitors miss, obviously, is the soul of the people and the history of the land that has "let them down." Even the seemingly silliest of the locals, Mickey, self-proclaimed last surviving extra from the filming of the 1952 John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara movie "The Quiet Man," has plenty of scars, plenty of insight underneath the surface.

If some gritty or satirical points get conveyed in heavy-handed fashion, the net result still persuades, thanks primarily to how richly the characters of Jake and Charlie are drawn.

They have in common the familiar problem of not getting as far as they had hoped in life or love. But they haven't forgotten how to dream (Charlie happily carries around a screenplay he has written), and that ability comes in handy after things turn dark.

Both are affected by the fate of Sean, a young local too messed up by drink and drugs to get hired on the set, or even get a hello from the famous Caroline Giovanni. When he weighs himself down with stones — the stones in the play's title — things go terribly wrong.

As this unexpected shadow falls over the movie set and the town, the playwright offers many a telling observation about rural folk and ways, family and missed opportunities. But Jones never dwells, never preaches. There is always another lift, another lilt around any gloomy bend, giving her play the slightest glint of fairy tale around the edges.

When Jake and Charlie realize there just might be a cool future for them after all, it's a little too pat, too predictable, but who cares? It sure feels like the perfect ending. And Lawson and Brandhagen make those closing minutes magical. Just watch them as they dare try out some film director chairs. See if you can stop from smiling along with them.

Lawson brings out the boyish and moodier sides of Jake with equally telling nuance, and jumps heartily into any number of assignments. He’s especially spirited tackling the female role of an airhead assistant film director. A little overdone, but hard to resist.

Brandhagen gets to portray the oh-so-desirable, oh-so-clueless Caroline and does so hilariously in a scene where the actress serves coffee to Jake (I never knew two lumps of sugar could be so suggestive). More important, the actor makes a wonderfully affecting Charlie, revealing a sweet, shy bundle of wide-eyed curiosity and optimism.

Given how vivid the writing is, and how fine a job these actors do under the vibrant direction of Derek Goldman (another Center Stage debut), the play wouldn't really need much in the way of props; a couple of bar stools, maybe. But there is a good deal of visual engagement here.

Misha Kachman's scenic design conjures up a nice green patch of the Irish countryside, including some of those dry stone walls that any visitor to County Kerry will recognize fondly. There’s even a bunch of white clouds positioned overhead. It could all turn cutesy, but doesn't.

And nothing gets in the way of the text, not even a movie camera gliding along for a tracking shot, or huge projections (by Jared Mezzocchi) on a rear screen. The staging, warmly lit by Jennifer Schriever, provides an evocative foundation that still leaves room for the imagination, and for the actors to soar.

That's exactly what Lawson and Brandhagen do. Their Irish accents ring true as they go, right down to how they get two syllables out of "film," and they even handle the inevitable Celtic dancing with aplomb, giving this charmer of a production an extra kick.

"Stones in His Pockets" runs through Feb. 23.