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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising. . . .—Hammy, quoting Glen Campbell song.
Pump Girl
Hannah Cabell as the title character
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Irish seem to have a gift both for despair and for storytelling, and the two combine to disquieting effect in actor-playwright Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl, which has been receiving its well-deserved American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II. (It was originally produced at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival and then at London's Bush Theatre.)

Set in "a border town" in Northern Ireland, Pumpgirl tells how the lives of three people—a boyish garage pumpgirl (Hannah Cabell), an amateur race car driver named Hammy (Paul Sparks), with whom she has a sexual relationship, and Hammy's lonely wife, Sinead (Geraldine Hughes)—intersect briefly and brutally. "Tell" is the right verb here, for Spallen's drama is essentially three intersecting monologues.

As staged with engaging simplicity by Carolyn Cantor, each actor sits on a chair atop designer David Korins's transparent, glass-like platform and occasionally moves around that reflecting stage. Although the characters listen and respond to each other, they tell their segments of this unsettling story directly to the audience. This might sound static were it not for Spallen's rich, imagistic language, fiercely dry humor and ability, by the end of the two-act piece, to draw the threads of her tale together into a fearsome climax.

By the finish, thanks not only to Spallen's skill at shaping human beings but also to the sharp acting, we know the unfulfilled longings that motivate the characters' behavior. Hughes, an actor who has written her own play about Northern Ireland—a solo piece called Belfast Blues—imbues Sinead with a compelling mixture of anger and crackling humor, while Sparks turns Hammy into a lost soul with whom we ultimately empathize. Cabell reveals the title character's combination of misery and gentleness, and her horrific willingness to see affection in male carelessness.

In style if not in content, Pumpgirl,evokes early, monologue-driven Conor McPherson plays such as Rum and Vodka and This Lime Tree Bower. The temptation is strong to compare Pumpgirl with McPherson's The Seafarer, another Irish drama of despair and isolation that arrived in New York (on Broadway) this fall (review). But there are more differences than similarities in the two plays. Pumpgirl focuses on the women in Hammy's world, while McPherson leaves the women off-stage, neglected and irate, while the men gather for a bout of Christmas Eve intoxication. While both plays are set in present-day Ireland (Seafarer in Dublin), there is the sense that Seafarer belongs to an older tradition of Irish drama, one that mingles naturalism and fantasy and in some way celebrates Ireland's male-centered culture of drinking.

Spallen's writing is rigorously unsentimental and belongs to the recent, hard-edged school of British drama. In the world of Spellen's play, the only entertainment seems to be listening to American country music. The outlets for the men's frustration are race cars and rape. The women's options are dead-end jobs, other women's husbands, or raising children and waiting for your man to reel in at two in the morning. There is the hint of a quasi-happy ending, or at least change, in Seafarer; for the three people in Pumpgirl, there is not the ghost of a chance for escape.

Pumpgirl, which was one of four recipients of a special Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2007, is only Abbie Spallen's second play. But her startling imagery, multi-dimensional characters and strong storytelling instinct make her a dramatist to keep watching.

By Abbie Spallen
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Cast: Hannah Cabell (Pumpgirl); Geraldine Hughes (Sinead); Paul Sparks (Hammy)
Set Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
MTC, New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues) 212-581-1212
From 11/08/07; opening12/04/07; closing 1/13/08.
Performances: Tuesday — Sunday at 7:30 PM; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM.
Tickets: $50
Reviewed by Alexis Greene December 26, 2007 ©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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