Oh, Ireland, that benighted, blighted country -- at least to hear its playwrights describe it. Frank McGuinness' "Dolly West's Kitchen," at the Old Vic through July 29, ends with its title character (played by a flinty Donna Dent) joining in the English hymn "I vow to thee my country." But the characters' feelings about their own neutral Ireland during World War II constitute a very different matter, especially in the rural landscape of a play in which people's social, political and even sexual stances make a charade of neutrality: Eire may not be at war, but its citizenry sure are.
Oh, Ireland, that benighted, blighted country — at least to hear its playwrights describe it. Frank McGuinness’ “Dolly West’s Kitchen,” at the Old Vic through July 29, ends with its title character (played by a flinty Donna Dent) joining in the English hymn “I vow to thee my country.” But the characters’ feelings about their own neutral Ireland during World War II constitute a very different matter, especially in the rural landscape of a play in which people’s social, political and even sexual stances make a charade of neutrality: Eire may not be at war, but its citizenry sure are.If there’s an element of lamentation to “Dolly West’s Kitchen” — a quality subverted by the self-importance of Patrick Mason’s surprisingly stiff Abbey Theater production — an in-your-face rage fuels Marina Carr’s Royal Court play “On Raftery’s Hill,” which occupies an incestuous rural backwater of the here and now. (This is one play that really could have been ripped from today’s headlines, not least in Ireland.) Between them, the two plays inadvertently make a pretty poor case for life in the Emerald Isle. Happily, an antidote is provided by the two film world hangers-on at the New Ambassadors in “Stones in His Pocket,” a small gem of a play (and production) that is also the season’s runaway sleeper hit. That assertion could be seen to reward the unambitious, since a glancing evaluation of all three works might position Belfast writer Marie Jones’ script for “Stones” behind the others in terms of scope and sweep. But to this viewer, McGuinness’ and Carr’s supposedly bold plays seem comparatively old hat. To its credit, “Dolly West” addresses topics — homosexuality, for one — not often treated in such a period piece, which wants on the one hand to strike an elegiac “Dancing at Lughnasa”-style chord even as McGuinness’ writing, at its best, has its own distinctive feistiness. But the problems come with a second-act descent into staginess and melodrama, along with the play’s tendency to announce its themes (“Jesus, this war has changed us all,” says Catherine Byrne, as Dolly’s briefly adulterous sister, Esther). Rather more disconcerting is a staging, from “Lughnasa’s” Tony-winning director Mason, so imprecise that even its visiting American performers — Perry Laylon-Ojeda and Harry Carnahan, playing Yank GIs billeted across the border in Derry — sound, bizarrely, as if their accents are fake. Throw in the inevitable wisecracking matriarch — Pauline Flanagan’s Rima West, pausing smugly after every zinger as if she were auditioning to host the Oscars — and you have a play about which it’s impossible to feel neutral. You either go with “Dolly West’s Kitchen” or you don’t; I did not. “On Raftery’s Hill” itself boasts no shortage of self-consciously conceived “characters,” starting with a seriously loony matriarch (Valerie Lilley’s Shalome Raftery) who wafts up and down the stairs of Tony Walton’s grimy set like Miss Havisham’s long-lost Irish cousin. But as directed by Garry Hynes, it’s far better acted than the McGuinness play — Cara Kelly is at her considerable best as the sad-eyed witness to some unwatchable family goings-on — while Carr gives Baroque voice to her downtrodden countrymen in language suggestive of O’Neill in his “Hairy Ape” days, as he might sound on amphetamines: “We were big loose monsters, hurlin’ through the air, wud carnage in our hearts and blood under our nails….” To what end? Who knows and, to be honest, who cares, as the play makes its grimly predetermined way. (Not helping matters is that its weakest perf comes in the show’s most crucial part: a wild-haired Tom Hickey’s none-too-fearsome Red Raftery.) For all the richness of the occasional speech, Carr seems to be squeezing the last meretricious gasp out of a depleted genre. “Stones in His Pockets” prompts its own gasps — continual ones of delight, especially as performed by two relative unknowns, Sean Campion and Conleth Hill, in the double-act of anyone’s dreams. And indeed dreams, whether American or Irish, are the subject of a disarmingly simple piece that may be less slight than Ian McElhinney’s ceaselessly deft staging at first appears. The setting is rural County Kerry, with Campion and Hill playing two extras on the set of an (unnamed) big-budget Hollywood film, where they are earning a princely 40 punts a day. (Wags have indicated that the film-within-the-play is the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman starrer “Far and Away.”) They also enact the various participants in the film — Hill has a field day playing the leading lady with “dingly-dangly earrings” who is far shrewder than the image she cuts — as well as numerous local folk: the stooped pensioner who worked in the 1950s on the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara movie “The Quiet Man”; the director priming his star in how to pronounce “father” (Lucille Ball learning French in “I Love Lucy” has nothing on this pedagogic encounter); the hapless Sean, the stone-laden (and often stoned) lad of the title, whose fate transcends mawkishness in the actors’ nimble hands. True, one could do without self-evident bromides like “We all dream; we’re no different,” as spoken by Hill’s prodigiously played Charlie Conlon. And there are moments when the tragic pivot of the writing is less moving than the quite mesmerizing rapport of its actors. But all that is to cavil about a play whose heart is as large as its cast is small. The stir sure to be caused by “Stones in His Pockets” is just beginning.