Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets is a play about the making of a major Hollywood motion picture, a period epic being filmed on location in Ireland. But it's performed by only two actors on an almost bare stage.
At Washington's Kennedy Center, in the touring production starring Bronson Pinchot and Tim Ruddy, the result is a delectably theatrical tour de force.
Consider, for example, what Pinchot is able to do with a simple vest. Wrapping it around his head, he becomes the movie's female star, an American diva who has just stepped out of the shower and swathed her hair in a towel. Later, Pinchot twists the vest into a makeshift scarf, tosses it around his neck and transforms himself into the movie's imperious British director.
Then there's the large trunk that is the production's central piece of scenery. Besides serving as a costume trunk, at various times it becomes a table in a pub, the star's limousine and even a coffin.
And what Pinchot and Ruddy do with designer Jack Kirwan's minimal costumes and props is nothing compared with the facility with which they shift personae among more than a dozen characters ranging from a pair of Irish extras named Charlie and Jake (their chief roles) to the star's burly Scottish bodyguard (Pinchot) and a wizened, local septuagenarian (Ruddy) who's made a career out of being a supernumerary in movies shot in this County Kerry town.
In this case, the movie, called The Quiet Valley, is being shot on the same location as John Wayne's 1952 The Quiet Man. Apparently, movie companies adore this verdant setting and the locals adore the influx of money, but there's little love or respect between townsfolk and Hollywood.
Jones, a prolific Irish playwright, based Stones in His Pockets in part on her background as an actress in movies shot in her native country. The play had its debut in Belfast in 1999, went on to be a hit at the Edinburgh Festival, ran six months on Broadway in 2001 and is still running on London's West End. The Broadway production garnered Tony Award nominations for its original Irish stars, a pair of actors whose protean abilities received so many laurels, they may have seemed irreplaceable.
But Pinchot, an American best known for his long-running role in the ABC sitcom, Perfect Strangers, and Ruddy, an Irish actor, have the material down pat. And though most of the smaller roles are paper thin, Pinchot, in particular, brings genuine heart to characters that could have been mere caricatures. Even his hair-flinging, accent-butchering diva turns out to be smarter and somewhat more socially conscious than she initially appears.
Throughout the production, which is nimbly directed by Hugh Borthwick, Pinchot and Ruddy prove adroit at rapid-fire character changes. But they truly outdo themselves in a step-dancing sequence, which begins with Charlie and Jake kicking up their heels and eventually brings in just about everybody else on the movie set, including Ruddy as a simpering female assistant and Pinchot as the aforementioned hulking bodyguard. (The actors go through most of the dramatis personae again in the curtain call, so be sure to stick around.)
In addition to the film company's blatant disregard for the locals, the play has another serious theme, suggested by its title, which refers to a suicide. There's a solemn note here - could we expect less from an Irish playwright? - but in the end, an element of hope arises from it.
That ending - a filmmaking scheme concocted by Jake and Charlie - is hokey and predictable, but there's a place for hokum, and this seems to be it. By the time Jake says, "I believe this could work," we believe it, too.
Stones in His Pocket may be a play about moviemaking, but more than that, it's about the magic of theater, and most of all, it's just plain fun.
Stones in His Pockets
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 2