Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Lyric pockets a small miracle

Phil Tayler and Daniel Berger-Jones.  Photos: Timothy Dunn.

Perhaps I was simply in the mood for any type of theatre done well by the end of last weekend (after I had suffered through three misfires in a row), but the Lyric Stage's Stones in His Pockets struck me as something of a small miracle.  I don't want to make any large claims for Marie Jones' sturdy two-hander - which has become something of a warhorse since its premiere in 1996 - although to be fair, it has affecting emotional and political dimensions; it's a worthy, fully-crafted play.  

But above all, it works, and Jones lavishes her two actors with cameos to die for as they impersonate virtually an entire Irish village (and the Hollywood film crew that invades it).  And luckily, the Lyric has cast two of Boston's smartest and most charming young performers, Phil Tayler and Daniel Berger-Jones, in these demanding roles; and they basically go to town with the show as only bright young talents can.

I admit that by now I have something of a man-crush (and a girl-crush too, who am I kidding?) on both these handsome thesps, who are among the most reliable actors in town.  Over the past year, Tayler, who is at heart a musical-theatre man, seems to have suddenly been in everything, everywhere, after lighting up the caverns of Floyd Collins last spring.  In contrast, Berger-Jones is more of an actor's actor, and made a huge impression in such demanding roles as Jimmy in Look Back in Anger with the Orfeo Group (which he co-founded); but Orfeo has disbanded, and we haven't seen him that much of late (somehow, despite being a born Shakespearean, we've never seen him in a leading classical role).

I'm happy to report that these two are naturals together, even though their instincts and approaches are often opposed.  Tayler likes to go big, while Berger-Jones values precision; but both are clearly committed to nailing the multitude of accents in Pockets, and at least to these American ears, they come through with flying colors.  Berger-Jones even carries off the daunting task of conjuring a Hollywood actress struggling (and hilariously failing) to muster an Irish brogue - surely a master-class acting-accent challenge.

Triumph 'n tragedy on the Irish set.
Indeed, the vocal smorgasbord served here (along with our ability to discern every separate spice) is reason enough to see the show.  Beyond that, even though much of Courtney O'Connor's production is painted in bold colors, the dynamic duo at its center do often manage to limn the underside of Jones' comedy, which basically depicts the destruction of a beleaguered Irish community by not only the temptations of the Hollywood dream machine, but larger global and market forces as well.  (The title, unexpectedly enough, refers to a suicide.)  

I admit that if you claimed the Lyric company doesn't quite pull off the playwright's intended mix of satire of Gaelic woe (the extras for the flick in question, The Quiet Valley, are directed to "Look dispossessed!") with a potent dose of the real thing, I wouldn't really argue.  Still, the production is often a good deal more complex than you expect - as the author, and these actors, inflect even their on-the-make Hollywood types with unexpectedly sympathetic motives and impulses.  Then again, both lead performances aren't entirely perfect: Tayler could dial back the barking here and there, and one of his female characters is all but indistinguishable from a swishy gay stereotype (he needs to come up with a little opening signal for her, as Berger-Jones does with his lead actress, "Caroline Giovanni," who is always sweeping a stray tress behind her ear).  Meanwhile Berger-Jones, for his part, could attend to a subtler problem: we learn a sad secret about his lead character toward the close of the show - and looking back, we realize how much more resonant his performance would be if a vulnerable desperation had subtly tugged at his character's hopes from the start.

But these are only quibbles about a production that more often than not simply carries you along with its own exuberant theatricality.  The bottom line is that the Lyric has another hit on its hands, and Tayler and Berger-Jones have earned a matched set of acting laurels.

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