The movies tell two types of tales about small-town dreamers and cinematic fame. In the first story, an aspiring star quits his/her job at Mr. Yokel’s grocery and buys a bus ticket to Hollywood, where home is a seedy motel and the only friendly faces belong to rapacious drug dealers and con men. For those keeping score, this is a tragedy.
In the second story, Hollywood invades the small town, bullying its merchants with demands for double lattes and temporarily turning its denizens into back-stabbing divas. This culture clash, which inevitably ends with the well-groomed cast and crew slouching back to La La Land, is a comedy.
North Carolina Stage Company’s Stones in His Pockets fits squarely in the latter camp. Marie Jones’ two-man play, which has won a raft of awards since its 2000 debut, revolves around a plugged-in Hollywood production crew’s noisy arrival in a quaint Irish village. NC Stage Artistic Director Charlie Flynn-McIver and Scott Treadway, associate artistic director of Flat Rock Playhouse, play 15 roles, including those of Jake and Charlie, two ill-fated locals cast as extras in the film.
NC Stage Producing Director Angie Flynn-McIver describes it as “hilarious,” saying she was drawn to the show’s mix of levity and substance.
“It’s hysterical and has a lot of meat to it, and nobody’s done it here before, so it’s a home run,” she says.
She adds that she’s always on the lookout for comedies with a small cast, though she prefers scripts that provoke thinking and giggling in equal measure. “We really feel we have an obligation to our core audience,” says the producing director, reeling off a list of the dramas NC Stage fans have embraced. “We’ve done Hamlet, we’ve done The Syringa Tree. We don’t want to do just fluff.”
Flynn-McIver first discovered Stones in His Pockets while working in Vermont. She bought tickets to the Broadway production on a whim, but wasn’t able to attend the performance. She gave her tickets to Charlie, who was “really taken with it,” she remembers.
The Flynn-McIvers found their director in Christopher Burns, who starred in the play on London’s West End alongside Bronson Pinchot, whose 1980s turn as Balki Bartokomous on Perfect Strangers earned him a berth in The Surreal Life house last season. Burns and Pinchot were touring the U.S. when the Flynn-McIvers invited him to Asheville.
“Charlie called and asked if I’d be interested in acting in it, and I said no,” explains Burns, who years ago appeared Off Broadway with Flynn-McIver. “Then he called four years later and asked me to direct. It’s a total dream come true.”
Burns says he initially worried he’d be tempted to mount a carbon copy of the production in which he starred. “I thought it might be a liability,” he admits. “But it turned out to be an advantage, because I knew the pitfalls.”
The show has been selling well in Asheville, perhaps because the topic has particular resonance with local residents. While New Yorkers and Londoners might identify with the deadline-driven film crew in perpetual search of better cell service, members of an Asheville audience know what it’s like to live in a non-tinseled town swept up by celebrity frenzy.
“The vibe is familiar to people here,” Angie offers. “It seems like every few years there’s a casting call for extras at the Asheville Mall.”
And while the self-proclaimed insiders living in the fictitious County Kerry village depicted in Stones are more likely to declare “it will luk bloody daft in the last scene if the whole lot of us luked like a whole lot of other ones,” than “Omigod, didja hear Steven Spielberg was downtown last night?,” the underlying obsession with filmic fame rings true on both sides of the pond.
“The people in the play are definitely Irish, but it’s not a stretch to relate to them,” Flynn-McIver says.
Burns also believes the script needs no translation: “There’s a real magic about this play. The whole premise is if anyone has a dream, they can press on and do it.”
Although Burns has refrained from tinkering too much with the script – he says there weren’t any lighting designs or blocking commands he swore he’d change if he ever had the chance – he’s accentuated the play’s underlying optimism by clarifying the two leading characters’ ambitions.
“By really making that part of the story sing, it’s probably a little more hopeful tale.” At least, he says, “I know people laugh more.”
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]
North Carolina Stage Company presents Stones in His Pockets at NC Stage’s theater in downtown Asheville (Walnut Street between Haywood and Rankin Streets). The show runs through Sunday, March 12, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12-$21; price varies by date. Call 350-9090 or see www.ncstage.org for more information.