Stones in His Pockets

By Marie Jones

Directed by Derek Goldman

Through Feb. 23 at Center Stage

There are more than

a dozen characters



Stones in His Pockets

, the deceptively dark comedy now playing at Center Stage. There are the two main characters, Charlie (Clinton Brandhagen) and Jake (Todd Lawson), down-on-their-luck locals in a small Irish town who become movie extras when a big Hollywood production comes. There are also other locals, like Mickey, the hunched and heavy-drinking elder who claims to be the sole surviving extra from a previous production filmed in the town,

The Quiet Man

, starring John Wayne; and Sean, a troubled young man whose drug addiction keeps him from landing one of the 40-quid-a-day gigs as an extra. There are also the Hollywood invaders, including Caroline Giovanni, the impossibly self-absorbed starlet, and Aisling, the irrepressibly perky assistant director in charge of corralling the extras.

All of the roles are, in fact, played by Brandhagen and Lawson, and that is, at least initially, the most compelling thing about the production. The duo manically jumps between identities, often playing two or three parts within a single conversation. As impressive as their performances are, the script, by Marie Jones, and the stage blocking-which has the actors whirling behind backs to slip on a hat and its corresponding character-might be even more absorbing. The set is simple but also inventive, particularly the dolly-mounted movie camera that seems to actually film the actors when they're shooting scenes and project them on a big screen behind the stage. (I spent much of my time during these scenes trying to determine if the projections were actually live shots from the camera or previously recorded ones. I'm still not sure.)

Most of the comedy comes from the broad juxtaposition of Hollywood attitudes with the small-town pace and attitudes of the locals. There are genuinely funny moments, as when the extras have trouble keeping straight faces as the stars-playing members of the Irish landed gentry-try to pull off local accents. But just as often, the comedy slips into caricature, especially with the female roles. The audience eats up these scenes, like the one where Giovanni turns a coffee break in her trailer into a breathy seduction complete with requisite double entendre about sugar lumps, but they're over-the-top and seem especially out of place when the plot takes a particularly dark turn at the end of the first act.

At the outset of the play, Charlie and Jake are relatively sanguine about the situation, eager to spend their daily 40 quid at the pub each night. But Jake in particular, who grew up in the town (unlike Charlie), has growing misgivings about the way the production is exploiting the local community. And when one of the invader's actions indirectly leads to the death of a local, the misgivings explode into anger and rumination on his perceived powerlessness.

Jake, who we learn moved to America and returned to his hometown feeling like a failure, resents the way the outsiders ignore concerns of the locals, even going so far as to insist on shooting a pivotal scene on the day of the funeral. Charlie, desperate to get one of the Hollywood types to read an action-movie script he's written, is reluctant to buy into sad-sack Jake's pity party. But he ultimately reveals a backstory that both explains his emotional distance and offers deeper insight into the struggles of the locals-and small-town folks everywhere-in the modern age, for whom pop and celebrity culture is as accessible as a smartphone and yet a world away.

At its core, the play is about nothing less than the search for meaning in human existence, one of the most enduring themes of the arts and, really, all human thought. In the end, there is resolution and hope for Jake and Charlie, and a message surprisingly similar to the one in

Man's Search for Meaning

, Viktor Frankl's memoir of surviving both the Holocaust and the loss of most of his family: The way to endure even the most horrific things that life throws at you is to identify a purpose that is personally meaningful and pursue it wholeheartedly. It may sound a little heavy for a play that also trucks in Hollywood stereotypes and silly accents, but the extraordinarily talented actors, despite the occasional slip into crowd-pleasing parody, mostly manage to pull off both the humor and the pathos.