When I walk into a theatre and see three chairs on a stage, my heart sinks. The chairs usually herald a monologue-driven play that will not be very active and cause me to wonder why we're all in one room listening to actors deliver these well-shaped paragraphs and not at home thumbing through a handsome volume or the glossy pages of the New Yorker (or the rougher pages of a literary magazine).
There are three chairs onstage at Manhattan Theatre Club's second stage, where Pumpgirl is playing. The chairs sit on a clear, plexiglass-ish floor raised about a foot over dry, scrub plant life (design by David Korins). It's a strange setting that promises something a bit more active than mere talk. And Newry writer Abbie Spallen more than delivers in her new play Pumpgirl.
This is "just talk" the way Brian Friel's Faith Healer is just "talk." Yes, we hear from three characters, and yes, the characters don't really interact onstage, but their stories intimately concern one another, their stories are full of reported dialogue, wisecracks, and emotional revelations, and being in their presence while they live out their stories in front of us is pure theatre.
It's also unforgettable.
It's three souls confronted by pure evil, and it's also a rare story about what happens to a man who participates in an evil act. There have been many stories about women who are gang-raped (OK, that's a spoiler, but you feel it coming by the middle of the first act), but not too many that take a hard look at one of the men involved, and attempts to see out from his eyes.
The title character, the "Pumpgirl", is Sandra, played by the ebullient Hannah Cabell. With a very boyish haircut and a button-down shirt she does look at first like a boy, but her face is just a little too pixie-ish and adorable for the repeated remarks about her ugliness in the play (even in a rural backwater in Northern Ireland, it's hard to believe everybody would confuse boyish attire with bad looks). Her title refers to her work at a filling station. Her nearly angelic resistance to anger tug at your heart long after the show ends. Spallen holds back a bit in revealing much about Sandra – where she's from, why she has no family, what her life is like – but Cabell fills the words so thoroughly you're more than willing to go with it. She’s a lonely sort, but she's also the type to keep a brave face and keep smiling, and she has an idealized crush on a local race car driver who bothers to talk with her from time to time, and also occasionally has sex with her, when he can't find anybody better.
He calls himself Hammy. Paul Sparks plays him as a ham, indeed, full of himself and his own swagger. He's a local race-car driver and he doesn't wear a helmet, hence his moniker "No-helmet Hammy." We first meet him as he narrates himself through a track, muttering "ow" every time he turns a corner and hits his head. He's full of theories about country music and the artistry of Glen Campbell, all of which Sandra eats up with a spoon. Sparks' character takes the biggest journey of all, and takes the audience with him.
And we meet his wife, Sinead. As played by Geraldine Hughes, who hails from West Belfast, Sinead has a wisecrack for everything. In contrast to Pumpgirl, she's dressed in a skirt and feminine top, with jewelry and heels (costume design by Mimi O'Donnell). She's thoroughly disgusted by her faithless, sweaty husband who comes home drunk nearly every night, and hilariously describes the way he drools on his pillowcase. She seems to be as harsh and unloving as Pumpgirl's perception of her filtered through Hammy, but she's too funny not to enjoy. And like every character in the play, she's got a lot of life and heart hidden beneath her anecdotes. Hughes' accent (naturally), is also the most consistent.
You don't want to tune out for any of the stories. Small details really matter. It's important to pay attention, for example, when Hammy describes his mates – particularly Shawshank, who's spent time in prison (hence the nickname) and who got out early by claiming to have found Jesus. Shawshank, though never seen, plays a pivotal role in the lives of all three onstage characters. You'll know what's going on a little sooner if you pay attention to Hammy – even though he's so thoroughly full of himself. A story Hammy tells about picking up a blonde after winning, screwing her and despising her, reveals such ugly jock behavior you'll want to write him off. Don't. Ultimately his story is the play's moral center and the reason it's unforgettable.
All of the characters refer to pop culture for examples, and what makes this so funny is how effective it is. Pumpgirl describes female customers who mock her by describing one as looking like "Ginger Spice, or whoever she is now – the fat-thin-fat-thin one." Country music runs through the play – literally, playing at beginning and end, but also figuratively (sound design by Robert Kaplowitz). Pumpgirl declares that "the best country music is Irish music." Sinead fantasizes about killing Hammy and singing a song called And I'm Praying For a Female Judge.
Sinead's caustic wisecracks soften up when she meets a bloke at the market who seems to speak to her soul. She describes a trembly feeling in "what I lovingly like to call my old Gobi Desert down there." It's to Hughes' credit that we somehow want this to turn out well, even though she and the guy are both married (his wife's away in Dublin at an INXS tribute band concert). She's appealing and affecting.
It's also a credit to director Carolyn Cantor that we hope for the best, for some romance and some lightness, even while knowing, for many reasons and clues already dropped, that the worst is yet to come.
What Spallen shows so compelling in Act II is how the ramifications of violence and betrayal far outstrip the initial acts themselves. Spallen's Pumpgirl misses Hammy, full of remorse for what has happened at the end of Act I, far more than she blames him. For her, the loss of his friendship and companionship cuts deeper than any sexual abuse.
Sinead knows something is up, too, but not quite what, when her shiftless husband begins following her around. "It's like having another shadow but one that moves of its own accord," she observes. Hammy, meanwhile, has noticed his small children for what seems like the first time. He's enthralled with young Kelly, who only wants a Bratz doll and will accept no substitutes. His appreciation is laced with wonder and despair and self-loathing – traits that, according to the devil in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, epitomize the experience of hell.
Watching Hammy in Act II is to watch a character in torment. A chance meeting between Pumpgirl and Hammy's children builds so much tension you might find yourself holding your breath, and an angry meeting between Sinead and her fling baffles her but terrifies the more knowing audience – but what really fills the space in the theatre is not so much the tension in the action, but the mystery of the depths of the human soul. How human beings perceive, misperceive, and affect one another plays out in front of us, with observation and compassion to spare.
Presented by and at Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center – Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., NYC, NY.
Opened Dec. 4. Runs through Jan. 13. Tues.- Sat. 7:30 p.m.,Wed., Sat. and Sun. 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: CityTix, 212-581-1212.
Author: Gwen Orel
Gwen Orel has been in love with Celtic music since she was a teenager. Founder of the Celtic Music Society of Montgomery, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and Back Stage. For the past two years, she has produced Celtic music for the Folk Project, New Jersey.