Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Stones in His Pockets and
Sunday in the Park with George

After seeing two Irish plays in New York, our first play after returning was Marie Jones's wonderful two man play about two Irishmen working as extras on a film being made in Ireland. The Magic Theatre presented the American premier of Stones In His Pockets at the Sam Shepard Theatre. Two very talented men took all the parts in this Irish comedy

Mary Jones is a well known playwright in the UK and Ireland. She currently has a play called Women on the Verge of H.R.T playing in the UK. It had a successful run at the Vaudeville Theatre in London and it is now touring UK. Stones has been presented in Ireland and this marks the first U.S. appearance of the play.

The play spins the story of two hapless Irish extras in a Hollywood movie. The two stage actors represents the villagers and film crew. It's full of characters and rapidly shifting scenes. The play depends on the skill of these actors and Ms. Jones's words. On both counts, it succeeds wonderfully.

The main story is of Jake, a native of County Kerry where the film is being made. He is unemployed, as are most of the villagers; they are making 40 pounds per day as extras. Charlie is the other main character. He is an outsider who has drifted from one part of Ireland to Kerry. He scores a job as an extra and becomes Jake's close friend. Charlie carries in his back pocket a battered screenplay. He hopes someone of importance connected with the film will look at the script and this will insure him of fame. The two men are opposites; Jake is depressed by the economics of the region while Charles is upbeat and optimistic.

The two characters fill the stage by taking the parts of villagers, directors and a host of moviemaking functionaries. Charles also takes the part of star Caroline Giovanni. He is wonderful in that female role without having to go into drag.

The actual title of the play refers to a young unemployed 18 year old Irishman who has left his father's farm because of the government orders to stop growing surplus food and who is thrown out of his local pub for bothering Caroline. That, among other factors, causes this young boy to fill his pockets with stones and walk into the river. His suicide creates the crisis that almost brings the filming to a halt since most of village extras want to attend the funeral . This leads Jake and Charlies to develop their own movie scenario based on the suicide of the young man.

I enjoyed the premise of this play since it rings true to heart. Movie companies do move into a small town to film for 4 to 8 weeks. The economy goes up, since the companies use extras from the town. They pour money into the place and after the company leaves, the town reverts to its former dull self. In Ireland, where many movies are being made and the economy is bad, it is doubly hard on the locals when the company leaves.The locals have no hope of acquiring jobs.

One of the interesting characters I liked most was the last surviving extra from the film "The Quiet Man". I remember the making of the film since it was one of Republic's big films. Although I did not go to Ireland with the company for exteriors, I was able to become involved with some interior shots at the Studio City lot.

The two men playing all characters are superb. Mark Phillips plays Jake, the aging surviving extra from "Quiet Man", many of the villagers, an effeminate ass't director and the young man who commits suicide. Kurt Reinhardt plays Charlie plus other villagers, the director, the producer, a Catholic Brother in addition to his wonderful impersonation of the fame movie star Caroline. These two men shift from one character to another with astonishing speed, often in mid-conversation, interrupting themselves to portray an intruding character and then shifting back to resume their talk.

The play could run successfully off Broadway and I hope they can bring it to New York next season. Stones runs until July 3.

Sunday in the Park with George

I must start by saying that Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George is not one of my favorite Sondheim's musicals. I am a Sondheim fan and I would rather see a musical by this composer then an Andrew Lloyd Webber show. I have tried to like George ever since I first saw it at the Booth Theatre in New York in the month of May 1984.

Prior to that opening, I had heard of the major problems with the production. James Lapine and Sondheim were always fighting over the score and lyrics. Most of the problem was the second act. Sondheim said:

"The show is, in part, about how a creation takes on a life of its own, how artists feed off art; the artist relationship to the material. Every time I listen to Rachmaninoff's variations on Paganini, I'm stunned, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to try it theatrically. When we'd fastened on the idea of using Seurat's painting and showing how it was made in the first act, I was all excited because I thought the second act could be a series of variations or comments on the painting. It might take the form of a revue with songs about aspects of arts, or the painting itself."

James Lapine was against this. He wanted to carry some kind of storyline from the first act and he said that there should be a focus of interest to the audience. If only Sondheim would have stuck to his initial idea, I think the production would have been much better. To me the second act stuck out like a sore thumb.

It took months of rehearsal to get a final version of act 2. In fact it was not completed until 3 days prior to the preview opening. Stephen wrote "Putting It Together" and all the other songs just prior to the preview opening. Prior to that the only song for the second act was "It's Hot up There", the rest of the second act was just talk. Several days before the first preview Lapine and Sondheim were seen arguing. James said "Just write me anything. Even if it's a piece of s---, I don't care. Just write me anything." Steve just sat there saying " ... no, no, no, I know."

When I first saw the production at the Booth, I was able to see Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. To me the best thing in the show was Bernadette. I was not impressed with Mandy at that time. I just did not like the score. I could not understand why until Sondheim in his biography said he was influenced by Benjamin Britten's operatic works and he called it "my Britten score." No wonder I did not like it since I never cared for Britten's operas.

I have seen the production on tape and I have seen the American Conservatory Theatre production of the musical. I just could not warm up to the musical. I had to go along with what some of the New York critics said about the musical. It was boring, lacked direction, thin and lifeless. To me a rarefied musical.

I approached the Theatre Work production hoping I could find some thing to make me change my mind. First let me say, Theatre Works did a great production of the musical. I cannot fault them in anyway. It was well sung, well directed (by Robert Kelly). The leads were excellent and I particularly like Michelle Duffy as Dot. She has a terrific voice she was superb in the number "Color and Light" and exceptional in "Children and Art." I thought Michael Babin was a little too stiff but maybe he will loosen up as George. He has an excellent voice however I did not like his "Finishing the Hat" or the Dog song. It grated on me.

The scene of "Bathers, Asnieres" was beautifully done as was the ending of the first act with the large scrim of Un Dimanch a la Grande Jatte. The positioning of the characters was excellent. Mr. Kelley must be credited with the marvelous way he gradually assembled a stage tableau of Seraut's La Grande Jatte' out of the set and characters, much of the non-musical buildup to this magical Act One final was a tad grating. I will state that Sondheim did turn in here one of his most courageous and introspective works. The music mimics Seraut's style, percussive and punctuation, a smattering of notes evolving into some soaring melodies. I thought Lapine's dialogue stooped for easy, gimmicky laughs, forsaking the material's subtlety and pacing. Some of the characters were unnecessary, such as the American couple in the first act. There were long passages of boredom as far as I am concern. I only wish I could have enjoyed the music more. Sunday runs through July 18.

- Richard Connema

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