Geraldine Hughes, Hannah Cabell, and Paul Sparks
in Pumpgirl
(© Joan Marcus)
Geraldine Hughes, Hannah Cabell, and Paul Sparks
in Pumpgirl
(© Joan Marcus)
Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl, now getting its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, is one of those minimalist non-plays in which actors deliver alternating monologues and rarely if ever look directly at one another. As such low-budget items go, the work -- set in Northern Ireland and thereby making Spallen something of a distaff Conor McPherson -- is gripping enough. But even as your interest remains pretty much engaged by the characters and the crisp and pungent dialogue, you're never quite able to silence the inner voice yelling: "Don't tell me -- show me!"

The story is transmitted by the no-name pumpgirl (Hannah Cabell), race-car driver Hammy (Paul Sparks), and wife Sinead (Geraldine Hughes). With Raymond Carver-like grimness, it covers a few stressed-out months in the threesome's interlocked relationships. Hammy, you see, is having it off with Pumpgirl, while unsuspecting Sinead is repulsed by everything her husband stands for. (Were she aware of his infidelity, she'd be jubilant.) In the course of the compulsive revelations, Hammy jaws about involving Pumpgirl in an unsavory menage a quatre at the home of a fellow he runs with named Shawshank, who wears a belt with a feathered buckle. The repulsive episode gives Hammy second thoughts about the squalid, resentful life he's living, which leads him to turn against poor, confused Pumpgirl.

What Hammy doesn't begin to realize is that the very same Shawshank has unbuckled his well-used belt by Sinead's guest-room bed, and the upshot is an unwanted pregnancy she's not sure how to handle. The trio's spiritually impoverished existences unwittingly pull them into a dramatic vortex -- one that's further underlined by director Carolyn Cantor, who eventually contrives to get the metal chairs Pumpgirl, Hammy, and Sinead have been using as home base into a triangular configuration.

Audience members wishing for more action actually do have a few things on which to focus. Spallen -- who introduced this gregarious exercise at the Edinburgh festival and then at London's influential Bush Theatre -- has a high-powered vacuum-cleaner's ability to sweep up details. To vivify the mundane routines her characters endure, Spallen salts in all sorts of dully quotidian references. The characters traffic in Richard Gere rumors, Spider-Man masks, Toyota Celicas, and Bratz dolls. Sinead even Googles Francis Bacon to learn there are two of them, the poet and the painter. Music by Queen, Supertramp, AC/DC, and Glen Campbell is mentioned and sometimes heard (courtesy of Robert Kaplowitz's sound design) to underscore the love the characters have for pounding top-40 fare.

The most magnetic of the threesome -- as written by Spallen and as played with a tart edge by Hughes -- is Sinead. (After performing her plaintive one-woman Belfast Blues for so many moons, Hughes obviously knows the way around in-one programs.) What makes Sinead so intriguing is that she possesses intelligence; she's a street-smart woman who's been rendered bitter and desperate by marriage and homemaker drudgery. Sardonic thoughts plague her, and she blurts them out with loudspeaker insistence.

Pumpgirl, who's habitually asked if she's a girl or a boy, is embodied by Cabell with swaggering precision (and in hermaphroditic clothes costumer Mimi O'Donnell has picked out). Sparks -- who is fast establishing himself as one of the town's best and most reliable actors -- lives up to his surname by sparking Hammy as much as possible. It's not his problem if the self-satisfied dolt he's playing isn't as galvanizing when falling into numb despair as Spallen thinks she's made him.

Incidentally, the Pumpgirl triumvirate is perched throughout on what set designer David Korins has made to resemble a large metal-and-glass-grid coffee-table. Beneath the curious podium is an arrangement of bushes that suggest an imaginative landscaper has been at work. Perhaps the foliage is intended to conjure up a countryside from which Ireland's population has become removed in a nature-unfriendly, post-industrial era. More immediately, the set unintentionally serves as a metaphor for a play somehow removed from its best-possible realization.