Surely I'm not the only New Yorker who greets the arrival of yet another Irish play with a certain trepidation. There has been a veritable invasion of Irish plays in the last few years, many of which reached these shores laden with praise well beyond their merit. "Stones in His Pockets," however, preceded by great acclaim and numerous awards in Britain and Ireland, exceeds the high expectations it has created. As you are probably aware, "Stones," by Belfast-born Marie Jones, is set in a tiny Irish town that has been invaded by a Hollywood production crew filming a grand romance between the highborn daughter of the lord of the castle and a handsome, lowborn man of the people. All the characters, from the temperamental star playing the heroine down to the lowliest extra, are taken by two actors - Sean Campion and Conleth Hill - who happen to be extraordinary. One of the remarkable things they manage is that, though they play several dozen roles between them, you always know who they are. It's easy, of course, to recognize Caroline Giovanni, the movie's star, because whenever "she" enters, Hill draws his head back and casts his eyes downward, the inevitable starlet's pose showing how vulnerable she is. Among the characters Campion plays is an elderly, crabby townsman - the last surviving extra from the previous film shot locally, "The Quiet Man."
He is easy to recognize because he has a stoop, but you know just as quickly when Caroline's bodyguard or the movie director has entered. As if it isn't enough that the actors make these transformations so quickly and completely, the second act offers a dance that starts out almost as a parody of, yes, all those Irish troupes that have passed through New York in recent years - but which becomes a virtuoso piece in itself. If the play were merely a pretext for Campion and Hill to display their abundant gifts, it would be entertaining, but something of a sideshow. As the evening proceeds, however, the tone turns serious. It is a tribute both to Jones' talent and that of the two cast members that "Stones" then becomes as moving as if it had been a proper play all along, without the high jinks. The only scenery is Jack Kirwan's backdrop, which suggests the cloudswept aura of 19th-century romance as well as the turbulence we associate with the Irish countryside. James McFetridge's lighting helps the changing moods, especially when the play grows serious. The evening moves with infectious gusto from the second it begins. Director Ian McElhinney has paced it beautifully. The bravura peasant dance is not the only thing that seems elegantly choreographed: So do many of the actors' movemenst, including the broad gestures that end some of the scenes. "Stones" might make you want to do a little jig yourself. It is an uproarious, joyful evening.
Marie Jones' Dublin and London superhit, "Stones in His Pockets," which opened last night at the Golden Theater, is a two-character play with a cast of thousands - well, more than a dozen, at least.
This conjuring act of an evening is not so mightily terrific as a play - it's OK - but as a demonstration of protean acting elevated into wacky levels of histrionic high jinks, it is sheer, nutty, rarefied fun.
And at times, being Irish, it has that obligatory - and here, painless - jab of poetry.
In a more comically knockabout, yet I must say more convincing, manner than Martin McDonagh's earlier "The Cripple of Inishman," it, too, describes what happens to a small Irish community when a Hollywood film crew descends upon it.
The main characters, a couple of extras called Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, are played, as they were originally in London, by Conleth Hill and Sean Campion - but then, so is everyone else.
The nub of the evening is that the entire play is acted out like a strip cartoon by just Hill and Campion, with the Spartan minimum of settings - an inexplicable line of various boots, a few versatile props and a wishy-washy seascape back cloth by Jack Kirwan - and nondescript costumes.
Apart from being a thrifty producer's bonanza, Jones' play must be an actor's dream - the perfect excuse to show off in public - and these two, directed deftly by Ian McElhinney, sleep-dance through it as if on air, both taking and giving obvious delight.
When I saw the play in London last season, Campion and Hill were the toast of the West End theater, and the envy of every chameleon in town. And deservedly so.
To see Hill switch over in a trice (if you've ever wondered what a trice was, watch these performances) from the sultry and affected star of our fictional but oddly credible movie epic, "The Quiet Land," as Carlotta Giovanni, to the star's bully-boy security guard, is to be bewitched and charmed.
And Campion is just as nimble and as accurate in his own spot-on characterizations and caricatures. Significantly, both actors work in a style that removes the silence from mime, but in a technique that still shows more than a morceau of Marceau.
Jones' story has its comic shenanigans, shades of O'Casey, with a shaft of tragedy, for what would an Irish comedy be without a funeral? But this shallow attempt to give depth to the farce seems too contrived and too superficial for its own good.
Jones does, however, have a priceless sense of the absurd, and can spin a tale with dizzying speed, shifting from one scene or character to another with the dauntless ease of a champion ice-skater on thin ice and beguilingly drunk.
There is, I would say, perhaps much less in "Stones in His Pockets" than Hill and Campion triumphantly suggest - but what gorgeous comic acting this is.
Why, just the sendup of "Riverdance," with the insouciant pair collapsing through the zaniest of Irish jigs, is in itself worth a leprechaun's ransom.
Whenever one of them sits down, there is no guarantee that he'll stand up as the same person. Why, even the simple act of walking prickles with suspense when executed by Conleth Hill or Sean Campion, the stars of ''Stones in His Pockets,'' Marie Jones's two-actor play with a cast of what seems like hundreds.
Watching either of these men flex his knee and raise a leg to move forward, you hold your breath. Because when his foot touches the floor, it is entirely possible that he will no longer be the sex, age or nationality that he was a second before.
One small step, indeed. The two human Etch-a-Sketches of ''Stones in His Pockets,'' the London import that opened last night at the Golden Theater, offer overwhelming evidence that there are special effects the movies will never do better than the theater does.
''Stones,'' which charts the impact of an American film being shot in an Irish village, has emerged over the past two years as one of those plucky little dark horses so cherished in the theater. First seen in Belfast in 1999, it moved on to the tiny Tricycle Theater in London before opening in the West End, attracting heady buzz, rapturous reviews and a cluster of awards at each stop.
So do we fall to our knees before yet another Irish messiah of a dramatist? Is Ms. Jones the new Conor McPherson, who was said to be the new Martin McDonagh, who was said to be the new Brian Friel, who . . . Well, let's stop there. It is undeniable that without Ireland, Western theater today would be much the poorer. And Ms. Jones makes her own distinctive contribution to the fine Irish art of theatrical storytelling.
But it should also be noted that the pleasures of ''Stones in His Pockets'' are less literary than kinetic. To encounter this play on the page would offer few clues as to what the excitement has been about. Its satire of those superficial, egomaniacal folk who make movies is awfully familiar stuff, especially in the States, where the politics of Hollywood generate more interest than the politics of government. And Ms. Jones burdens an essentially comic play with a thudding tragic center.
The stones of the title, after all, refer to a suicidal drowning and metaphorically to the oppression of an impoverished rural people fed on unrealizable dreams. The play treads on cracking ice when it criticizes the cardboard figures and stock situations perpetuated by Hollywood. Its own characters, as often as not, seem to have been conceived by a cookie cutter.
Then again, without ''Stones,'' we would be denied the joys of Mr. Campion and Mr. Hill splitting like amoebas into all those different people. And under the agile direction of Ian McElhinney, who knows just how to show off his chameleon stars, the actors command our interest even when the script does not.
The hard-luck heroes of ''Stones'' are Charlie Conlon (Mr. Hill) and Jake Quinn (Mr. Campion), small-town Irishmen in County Kerry who, like most of the locals, have signed on as extras for the big-budget film being shot there. This affords them not only well-paying jobs, which they sorely need, but also a chance to gawk at the movie makers and fantasize about joining their glamorous ranks.
Disillusion of course is waiting off camera, fueled by Jake's flirtation with a lusty screen goddess and by a local death that the visitors from Hollywood dismiss as a professional inconvenience. The path this disenchantment takes is well worn. Thank heavens that Mr. Hill and Mr. Campion walk it so stylishly.
Mr. Campion is tall and angular; Mr. Hill, shorter and rounder. But when it comes to their turning into the dozen or so other characters in the play, the particulars of anatomy are irrelevant.
Mr. Hill has only to shift his weight and run a finger around one ear to metamorphose into Caroline Giovanni, the beautiful young American star who has a habit of ''going ethnic'' on location. Mr. Campion bends his back to a 90-degree angle and becomes creaky Mickey, regularly described as one of the oldest surviving extras from ''The Quiet Man.''
Then he bounds into the air, turning, before he lands, into the young, ambitious Aisling, a pretty assistant director with the sort of patronizing air that inspires homicidal urges. Mr. Hill, in the meantime, has thrust out his stomach to morph into Caroline's bodyguard, aptly described as ''the heavy.'' This is all achieved without props or changes of costume. Yet each character is as clearly drawn and individual as a caricature by Daumier. Jack Kirwan's simple single set wittily features a long line of diverse, shabby footwear at the back of the stage. It's a visual joke that captures the wonder of the evening: how could two actors possibly fill all those shoes?
Mr. McElhinney capitalizes ingeniously on the presto-chango panache of such transformations, letting us see the performers literally step into and out of different characters. Even as plain old Jake and Charlie, Mr. Campion and Mr. Hill work magicianlike effects.
''Look at her lookin' at us lookin' dispossessed'' is the job description Jake gives to Charlie of their roles as Irish peasants. With these actors, just looking becomes a frenetic, hilariously self-conscious physical activity.
''Stones in His Pockets'' is definitely longer than it needs to be, and its second act in particular treats serious themes with a capital-letter bluntness that isn't so far away from the Hollywood style it parodies. On the other hand, where else can you see two men condensing the entire experience of ''Riverdance'' into a choreographic sequence that lasts only seconds?
No doubt it's merely coincidence, but it somehow seems appropriate that "Stones in His Pockets" should open on Broadway on April Fool's Day. If "World's Most Mysterious Mysteries" or some similar TV show ever gets around to the legit biz, it might begin by exploring the phenomenon of this little juggernaut, the latest overseas import to arrive in New York trailing awards, acclaim and a significant advance (more than $1 million).
What's onstage at the John Golden Theater hardly seems to warrant those much-coveted prizes. Marie Jones' play, a sentimental comedy centering on a pair of extras on a film set in Ireland, is a minor piece of writing. It's distinguished -- barely -- only by a gimmick that finds all the play's roles performed by two actors, Conleth Hill and Sean Campion. Talented these two certainly are, and their bright and genial performances, mixing caricature and more sensitive moments in equal measure, seem to keep the audience happy throughout the show's overextended running time. But this gambit is hardly groundbreaking -- anyone in London heard of a little show called "Greater Tuna," which also used just two actors to bring alive an entire social ecosystem?
Maybe it's the gleeful Hollywood-bashing, always a popular spectator sport overseas, that explains the appeal of the show in London, where it continues to play to packed houses after more than a year on the boards, now without acclaimed original stars Campion and Hill. The plot focuses on Charlie Conlon (Hill) and Jake Quinn (Campion), two hapless extras on the set of a Hollywood film being shot in rural Eire (never mind that this picture, a romantic period piece, hardly seems the thing to set execs frothing at the mouth these days).
Both Charlie, whose videostore was ruined when a chain moved in down the street, and Jake, recently returned from an unsuccessful foray in New York, secretly dream of a career in the biz; Charlie's got a film treatment in hand, but it's Jake who gets a break, when the picture's dewy-eyed American superstar, Caroline Giovanni, falls briefly under the spell of his charm or, more specifically, his authentic accent.
In addition to the easygoing Charlie, Hill plays Caroline, his voice evaporating to a breathy whisper as his hands flicker about adjusting nonexistent tresses. The manner in which the actor transforms himself from the feline Caroline back to Charlie to Caroline's burly bodyguard and several other roles is certainly impressive; his body seems to be morphing before our eyes.
Campion, likewise, deftly dashes between his roles, turning on his heels and flipping into a new guise as if inhabiting a new soul were a mere matter of changing channels. His characters include perky production assistant Aisling and a feeble, stooped fellow whose claim to fame is his status as "the last living extra from 'The Quiet Man.' "
Although the actors bring funny little snippets of personality to each character, many of the show's biggest laughs come from the simple sight of big, masculine fellows mincing about impersonating ditzy women, a time-tested but hardly distinguished harvester of chuckles (the moon-faced Hill eventually began to remind me of another female-impersonating Hill -- Benny).
Predictably, the visitors from the venal world of showbiz are all selfish, superficial and exploitative, while the corps of Irish extras have more lively spirits and gentle edges. They also have a tragedy in their midst, when a drug-addled kid, Sean, who was axed from the extra corps for unreliability, commits suicide.
Here Jones' play turns from soft satire to sentimentality and sententiousness, as big bad Hollywood must take the rap for pushing the drug that really killed Sean: false hope. It seems that he, not unlike Jake and Charlie, also was hooked on the dream of making it in showbiz. The real blame for his death, Jake comes to believe, can be placed on the movies, guilty as charged of "filling young Sean's head with dreams."
Jones doesn't seem to see that this is both a simplistic swipe at Hollywood and a rather bigger insult to the Irish folks she presumably intends to depict sympathetically. Apparently, all the country folk in Ireland are so dim they take the promises of major motion pictures as literal truth, when they would be better off happily tending cows. (In the end the play gets to have it both ways, positing Jake and Charlie's own, more truthful film as the great redresser of Hollywood's wrongs.)
London audiences -- and critics -- certainly haven't been put off by the windy moralizing of the play's second act. New Yorkers also may be happy to sit back and coast on the pleasure of watching Campion and Hill vamping away onstage, even if similar sights can be seen at smaller, less expensive venues once or twice in virtually any season. (Mark O'Rowe's "Howie the Rookie," also an Irish play featuring just two actors, was a much richer piece of theater, and it could be seen downtown for less than half the $65 top being charged for "Stones.")
Heck, even the movie business seems to have fallen under the sway of this small-potatoes satire; London's Tiger Lily Films recently pacted to film the play with a full cast, a strange case of feeding the mouth that bites you.