Dying Is Hard 

A pair of death-inspired comedies opens at Theatre Memphis and TheatreWorks.

Just stand there and look dispossessed" are the instructions film extra Jake Quinn passes on to his mate Charlie Conlon. And as the cameras go by, both men lean on their imaginary sod-cutters, mouths agape, eyes hollow and hungry. The hyper-real irony, of course, is that Jake and Charlie, like all the residents of Ireland's County Kerry, are already quite dispossessed. Poverty is widespread, and a hopeless depression has spread across the countryside like a thick Irish fog. Only the whiskey, pints, drugs, and a wistful nostalgia for the good old days keep the general population from drowning itself in the river. These days, County Kerry's only useful as the backdrop for sprawling Hollywood dramas with fake happy endings. And since the glamorous cast and cocaine-sniffing crew of The Quiet Valley showed up with costumes, lights, and ready cash in tow, that's exactly what it has become.

Marie Jones' dark but giddy comedy Stones in His Pockets, which opened last weekend at Theatre Memphis, is an occasionally, though not entirely, brilliant look at the corrosive nature of American pop culture -- and Hollywood culture in particular. Imagine David Mamet's State and Main set in the Irish countryside, and you'll get some notion of the tone and tempo.

Stones has a gimmick as well. Two actors play every role: 15 between them. By changing their voices, accents, and posture, Memphis stage veterans Michael Gravois and Tony Isbell effectively play starlets, producers, grips, and a village full of memorable characters. Isbell's portrayal of Old Mickey, the last surviving extra from John Wayne's The Quiet Man, is by turns heartbreaking and hysterical as he stares down the possibility of a funeral without whiskey. Gravois also presents a number of well-defined characters but is best as Charlie Conlon, a bankrupt but seemingly unbreakable spirit with big Hollywood dreams and dark, well-hidden despair.

Everybody is related in County Kerry, and when Sean Harkin, a hometown-boy-turned-druggie walks into the river with his pockets full of rocks, the film executives initially refuse to break for the funeral for fear of going over budget. Worse, the cast and crew eventually turn the funeral into a publicity stunt, and Old Mickey gets sacked for drowning his grief in a nip.

If there is a serious criticism of Stones in His Pockets it's that it ends too abruptly, with a happyish Hollywood ending that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute. Director Stephen Hancock, who has dexterously navigated the difficult script, was unable to make the big happy ending seem any less unnatural. And in its last minutes the play becomes a bit too much like the very thing it has eviscerated. Nevertheless, it's fun and thoughtful, if a bit superficial at the edges. And Isbell and Gravois, doing outstanding work, manage to create an entire village out of nothing at all. Impressive.

Through January 22nd

Three Sisters and a Funeral

When I am the supreme ruler of all things theatrical, I will lay down but one rule: There can be no more plays about funerals. The device is too easy, and, all puns aside, it has been done to death. Nevertheless, The Memory of Water is a well-constructed, commercial comedy that is amusing, occasionally surprising, and often insightful, if a bit tedious in its ham-fisted attempts at philosophizing. Of course, our parents live inside of us, and their ghosts haunt us. That's called genetics, and there's no need for a homeopathic water metaphor to make that point. Still, with a solid cast, and under the guidance of director Josie Helming, Playhouse on the Square's production at TheatreWorks is never anything less than watchable and occasionally quite riveting.

Upon the death of their mother, three sisters -- a doctor, a health-food pusher, and a drugged-up fun-girl -- discover how much they are like the woman they loved, even if they never particularly cared for her. The play is a live-action (and self-aware) chick-flick with a pair of significant others (a celebrity physician and a miserable businessman) functioning like a Greek chorus.

The central theme is memory and how tricky it can be. The mother was suffering from Alzheimer's, and the sisters' childhood memories never seem to match up. But in the end, all the heavy talk never adds up to much more than some pretty words.

TheatreWorks is a tiny space, and the naturalistic, nearly cinematic acting style adopted by the cast works well, though there are occasions where the event could be, perhaps, a bit more theatrical and a bit less obvious. The "ghost scenes" -- due primarily to the background music -- flirt with self-parody. But even then, a rock-solid performance by Laurie Cook McIntosh keeps even the show's most fantastical scenes grounded in reality. •

Through January 30th

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