Heavy satire, but 'Stones' a touch too light

THEATER REVIEW: "Stones In His Pockets" at Northlight Theatre ★★½

Told by a pair of young Irishmen appearing as "40-quid-a-day" extras in a Hollywood movie, one of the anecdotes in Marie Jones' "Stones In His Pockets" involves Hugh Grant and a prostitute. The tale, recounted at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie with an ample amount of schadenfreude, is partly a reminder that this hugely popular comedy has been around for 17 years now and showing some age (where is a good Anne Hathaway reference when you need one?), and partly a very apt statement of one of its main themes: the perennial appeal to the powerful of slumming it.

In Jones' economical two-actor play — which was seen on Broadway in 2001 (and, memorably, at the old Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park in 2005) and stars David Ivers and Brian Vaughn at Northlight — the seat of power is an American movie star. This Caroline Giovanni is filming a romantic epic in the Emerald Isle and throwing herself into her "research," in that obnoxiously intense way that Hollywood stars do. She's willing, maybe, to seduce a doe-eyed extra or two, if it might help her with her accent. And, as Jones shrewdly makes clear, she's smart enough to have read Seamus Heaney, and self-involved enough not to see with any kind of clarity what she does to others.

Jones clearly intends Giovanni, who is adroitly played by Vaughn, as a metaphor for Hollywood and America, which likes its theme-park Irishmen drinking Guinness, wearing Aran sweaters or (as in this particular movie) playing "dispossessed turf-diggers." And although you can see where her main sympathies lie, Jones doesn't let the Irish off the hook. They are, after all, taking the 40 quid and straining for some personal interaction with the American star. Such is the dysfunction of the relationship.

Since it's a tour-de-force for two actors and full of comedy, "Stones In His Pockets" can often seem like one of those economical romps beloved of actors and producers alike, but sometimes tiresome for an audience. "Stones," though, is a much better piece than, say, "The 39 Steps." Its dark core, from which the play derives its title, frankly could use more attention in J.R. Sullivan's production — which also could use a more ambitious set design from Scott Davis, and is just a tad too pat, complete, safe and comfortable for its ultimate good. Ivers and Vaughn, also co-artistic directors of the Utah Shakespeare Festival from which this production was basically imported, are exceptionally capable and truthful actors with a strong interpersonal connection. These characters sit easily within their wheelhouses. But their very competence and charm presents some dangers, not the least of which is the lack of palpable risk.

I've seen versions of "Stones" where you find yourself choking on your laughs once Jones reveals the cost of this collision of power, culture, connection, aspiration and pain. This genial production, which is enjoyable throughout nonetheless, runs a wee bit around those dangerous pockets, emphasizing the play's human warmth, opportunities for quick-change characters and wicked little satirical touches.

cjones5@tribune.com

Through April 14 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 2 hours, 10 minutes; tickets: $25-$72 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org

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