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Theater review by Naveen Kumar
There are three sides to every story in Pumpgirl, Abbie Spallen’s play about adultery, assault and ennui in Northern Ireland. One side is that of the title character (Labhaoise Magee), a keen observer of life’s subtlest details who likens the smell of petrol to a pungent mix of cherries plunged in vinegar. Another belongs to the man she falls for (Hamish Allan-Headley), an amateur race-car driver who wears his swagger like a shopworn T-shirt; the third is that of his wife (Clare O’Malley), who recoils from her husband’s touch every night and describes motherhood as a state of autopilot.
Told entirely in direct address from individual characters to the audience, Pumpgirl is part narration, part confession and almost no action. This technique allows the expanse of Spallen’s vivid prose to conjure a whole world within the confines of director Nicola Murphy’s minimal basement production, and all three performers impressively handle the tricky task of embodying emotion while also narrating it. But the lack of interaction among the characters becomes a hindrance as the drama attempts to generate momentum. The swift cuts among the monologues during the play’s escalating conclusion are enough to cause attention whiplash.
Pumpgirl also raises troubling questions that Spallen’s descriptive powers stop short of addressing with clarity. Why, when one of the women suffers sexual trauma, does the narrative linger over the emotional fallout for its perpetrator without seeming to consider hers as carefully? And why does the incident only make her love him all the more? Without seeing them together, it’s hard to tell. “He said, she said” can only take the story so far.
Irish Repertory Theatre (Off Broadway). By Abbie Spallen. Directed by Nicola Murphy. With Labhaoise Magee, Hamish Allan-Headley, Clare O’Malley. Running time: 1hr 50mins. One intermission.