Volume 77 / Number 28 - December 12 - 18, 2007
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Photo by Joan Marcus

Geraldine Hughes, Hannah Cabell, and Paul Sparks in the MTC production of Abbie Spallen’s “Pumpgirl,” now at New York City Center Stage II

Loneliness by the dashboard light

By JERRY TALLMER

In a rundown petrol station in County Armagh, just across the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the pumps are manned, so to speak, by a bluejeaned young woman of indeterminate gender. Nobody remembers her name. They just call her Pumpgirl, as she does herself. She is the butt of lots of crass halfwitticisms (“… does look a bit AC/DC, doesn’t she?”) from the mouths of smartass bypassing females, and even more telling jibes (“ … walks like John Wayne and looks like his horse”) by the boozy, boasting local males.

Sean O’Casey would have loved her, and would have loved Abbie Spallen, the young woman who created her. He’d have had good reason. The music of O’Casey — plus a much similar pinpoint of personality, view, and intelligence — rings through every line of “Pumpgirl,” the off-the-main-track London triumph by Ms. Spallen that has now reached us in a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation directed by Carolyn Cantor at New York City Center Stage II.

There are three speaking characters in “Pumpgirl,” ergo three actors. All the others are spoken about, but with such reality and so visually that the stage swarms with life.

The three principals are:

(1) Hammy (Paul Sparks), better known as “No Helmet” Hammy, a stock-car racer, rhythm-and-blues fan, and scrubber of filthy chicken coops (the dole doesn’t know this), who from time to time commits sex with his lonesome friend the Pumpgirl in the front seat of his vehicle, while she stares up at the roof of the car remembering the death of a family in another such conveyance. There will even come a moment when Hammy, friend or not, participates bleakly in a gang rape of Pumpgirl evocative of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Tralala.

(2) Sinead (Geraldine Hughes), Hammy’s wife, turned-off sharer for more than a decade now of “the bed with the invisible barbed wire down the middle,” but also mother of the two small children Hammy adores — plus a third, now forming up in Sinead’s womb, that he knows nothing about.

(3) Pumpgirl herself (Hannah Cabell), ever hopeful, ever hopeless, quick to detect phoniness wherever it preens itself, and about as cheerful a wielder as you could find of the dirtiest words in the English language; in particular and frequently — in comic exchanges with Hammy but also with everyone else — the one short ugly four-letter word that all women most detest. As a man might use it, but also as a defiant girl.

A contradiction in terms? That’s what this play is all about.

What also rings all through it, interestingly, is an iconography of American popular culture: Elvis, Glen Campbell, Captain Marvel, Spiderman, Liberace, Kevin Costner, etc., etc., and the villain of the whole piece — though to say “villain” is to give him more stature than he deserves — is a creepy smalltime makeout artist called Shawshank (after the American film), because he’s done time. In prison he came across books of quotations, and he now has a shelf full of such books from which he draws zingers as tools of seduction. When, in the local marketplace, he throws one at our Sinead — “Whoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god” — she finds her loins glowing with a fire she hasn’t felt in years.

It’s from Francis Bacon, he tells her. They end up in a crude, crass, ludicrous one-night stand, tripping over the kids’ toys, in the spare room of her and Hammy’s house — “I’m not doing this on the marital bed ok? I’m just not.” She later finds out, through Google, what Shawshank doesn’t know: that there are two Francis Bacons — the poet, the painter. Pumpgirl, for her part, was onto Shawshank’s sliminess from the start.

And Hammy? He’s a wonderful concoction of contradictions, funny, serious, embittered, fatalistic, slobby, meticulous, crass, caring (for a few seconds, now and again). Those contradictions fuse together suddenly, finally — and most unexpectedly — in a Toyota Celica full of Glenn Campbell music and human loss.

I wish I could say that I came away from the theater brimming with wonderfully mixed emotions, but the fact is that “Pumpgirl” on the page is one thing, and on the stage — this stage, at any rate, for me at any rate — another.

The format of the piece is of three alternating monologues — Pumpgirl speaks for a half page or a page, Hammy for something of the same, Sinead ditto, then back to Pumpgirl perhaps, then to Sinead, then Hammy, and so on and so forth, the separate blocks sometimes gratuitously linked one to another through key words.

The problem is that in the playing the two actors who are not speaking at any given moment are forced to remain on or off their chairs as living statues — or slow-motion dream figures — while Actor No. 3 is talking; or, in the case of Mr. Sparks in particular, acting the hell out of the role and talking (to my delight).

Geraldine Hughes, the only born Irisher (I think) on the team, showed how she could move us with her own “Belfast Blues” of a few seasons back. Here she gives us a Sinead who could again break your heart with her sweet sad promising smile and briefly liberated sexuality.

At the center of everything is Hannah Cabell as Pumpgirl, and the big problem for me is that Ms. Cabell does not in the least walk like John Wayne or, still less, look like his horse. No, she is a tall, slim, button-cute number under a close-cropped helmet of dark hair, and, struggling to get her tongue around all those words, some of the time comes up with a mouth full of marbles.

So the odds are against the actors, and against a director who must try to help them.

Sean O’Casey, meanwhile, has done all he can, and may be seen and heard in his own right at the double-bill of “I Knock at the Door” and “Pictures in the Hallway” as brought back after 51 years by Stuart Vaughan at Stage 3 on West 43rd Street. You do not have to wait 51 years for Abbie Spallen. She and Pumpgirl are here now.

 PUMPGIRL. By Abbie Spallen. Directed by Carolyn Cantor. A Manhattan Theatre Club presentation at New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212, or manhattantheatreclub.com.

A crowd of 3,000 people waited to get into the new Apple Store on W. 14th St. last Friday.


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