April 24, 2002


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Grounded

The small pleasures of Marie Jones's fail to emerge at the Curran.

By Brad Rosenstein

Stones in His Pockets

IT'S A FACT that's gone largely ignored, but Marie Jones's international hit Stones in His Pockets is no newcomer to San Francisco. Years before it became the toast of the West End and Broadway, the play appeared in workshop at the Magic Theatre's Festival of Irish Women Playwrights and in a subsequent production. Perhaps things should have stayed that way. On the stage of the Magic, Jones's play was a slight but charming satire; on the stage of the Curran Theatre as a "Best of Broadway" offering, it's an overlong and flimsy farce.

Jones isn't the first Irish playwright to note the negative impact of Hollywood on her native land. Stones tells the tale of a big-budget film crew invading a small village in County Kerry, ignoring its dramatic realities while using the place and its people as mere backdrops for yet another improbable Tinseltown fiction. Two Irish extras, Charlie Conlon (Bronson Pinchot) and Jake Quinn (Christopher Burns), feel lucky to be getting their 40 pounds a day and the chance to rub elbows with stars. Despite their lowly status and battered personal histories, both men harbor big dreams fanned by their brush with the rich and famous.

Since Charlie and Jake play all of Stone's roles, from townspeople to film crew, the piece is an actors' field day. By all reports, its original cast, Conleth Hill and Seán Campion, were brilliant and a major ingredient in the show's success. Pinchot and Burns do a creditable job, but original director Ian McElhinney consistently allows them to go zooming over the top into broad caricature. The slam-bang approach also accentuates the play's central flaw: its unconvincing shift into pathos with the death of an undersketched supporting character. Although Jones sounds bass notes throughout about the colonization of Ireland past and present and the devastating effect the country's hopeless economy is having on the current generation, the play stumbles when it attempts to address the issues head-on. The production is also bloated with unnecessary script padding that turns the evening into an overextended ramble.

"Imagination can be a damned curse in this country," a priest in Stones says, and imagination is both the subject and form of the play. Imagination sustains Charlie and Jake and may offer their only escape even as it ensnares them – a dilemma that Jones suggests may extend to all of Ireland. At the Magic, the play's two-actors-no-set format was an invitation to join in that act of imagination, but in the Curran's more expansive and expensive environs, the approach seems merely thrifty. It's ironic that of the gifted Jones's nearly 30 plays, this minor work, a last-minute season filler in Belfast, should be the one that makes her famous. But hey, that's Hollywood – and naturally, a movie version is in the works.

Looking for love

There may well be a great piece of theater lurking in the biblical Song of Songs, but unfortunately A Traveling Jewish Theatre hasn't found it in Come, My Beloved. Adapter and director Naomi Newman had an interesting idea: to explore the poem's celebration of secular and divine love. This conflation of poetry, song, and movement links and contrasts a pair of rhapsodic contemporary lovers (David Mendelsohn and Tanya Shaffer) with an older woman (Krisztina Peremartoni) to whom the same honeyed phrases convey her erotic love of the divine.

Unfortunately, the "contemporary" couple actually seems trapped in a '70s Hallmark-card vision of groovy lovin'. Oren Ergas's easy listening score definitely doesn't help, nor does the awkward faux-naïf movement. The cast is made up of first-rate actors who lavish considerable skill on the enterprise, but their efforts can't save them from the inherent absurdity and tediousness of supposedly modern lovers repeatedly praising each other's virtues with comparisons to myrrh, gazelles, et al. And Peremartoni's character never gels into the mix.

Newman always strikes me as a genuinely wise soul, so it's baffling how egregious her choices are here, including several intimate encounters that closely resemble bad rehearsal exercises. The text's translation by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch ups the heat but sometimes sacrifices the rich traditional cadences for a weaker, more conversational accessibility. The piece looks lovely, thanks to Mikiko Uesugi's elegant playground of a set, beautifully lit by Heather Basarab. It's a shame the appealing packaging doesn't contain a more theatrically acute exploration of this controversial and mysterious scriptural entry.

'Stones in His Pockets' runs through May 12. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.), Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, S.F. $34-$59. (415) 512-7770. 'Come, My Beloved' runs through May 19. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m., Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida, S.F. $12.50-$25. (415) 399-1809.