“Ireland is the snot rag of two masters,” James Joyce famously contended. “One English, the other Italian.” Today the first half of that dictum is nearly null and void, and the six counties in the North are shakily poised to infect the Irish Republic to the south with a virulent European strain of HongKongcocci.
Set in 1985, the focus of “The Belle of Belfast” is on the “Italian” master, and takes its primary setting as the confessional booth where Father Ben (Daniel Blinkoff) dispenses absolutions to the congregation of his Belfast church. But the confessional morphs into a crucible when Anne Malloy (Sarah Gise), a nubile nymph in a pleated skirt enters the penitent’s compartment with contrition the last thing on her mind. She mocks both the church and God with a wild banshee like abandon gleefully relishing the discomfort it causes Father Ben. “It’s only religion, Father,” she assures him. “Don’t take it so seriously.”
Producer Laura Hill and Artistic Director of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, Gates McFadden, have again succeeded in forging a top-quality production.
Director Claudia Weill imposes a pristine pacing on the piece while deftly integrating both cast and material to bring about for its audiences a poignant and supremely entertaining evening.
The cast assembled here is exceptional, which seems to be a hallmark of the EST’s productions. Gise and Blinkoff’s performances skillfully touch all the bases required of them as the duo tumbles towards a forbidden union of the flesh. Caitlin Gallogly as Ciara, Anne’s zaftig confidant with a tooth for “Curry chips and cock” conveys the anguish of living through the “troubles” with heartbreaking believability. Carol Locatell is spot on as Anne’s doddering Aunt Emma who struggles desperately to collect sufficient sins to confess on Sundays, even if it means resorting to a tad bit of fantasy. “I’d let the Pope touch me, even if he’s a flecking Pollack.” Billy Meleady brings both comedy and pathos in his rendering of the alcoholically inclined Father Dermot, Father’s Ben’s parish mate, who resists all efforts at reining in his tippling. “Moderation,” he wails, “defeats the purpose of drinking!”
Playwright Nate Rufus Edelman, a native Angelino, who studied drama at Trinity College in Dublin, has captured flawlessly the rising inflection and notorious incomprehensibility of the Belfast brogue, the Hiberno-English dialect spoken throughout “Norn Iron”. He is fortunate in having a cast capable of standing up to the linguistic challenge, even if initially it takes some adjusting of the audience’s ear to follow it. (And this coming from someone who once lived in Belfast himself.)
In “The Belle of Belfast”, Edelman has also given us a very funny play, and laughter is a wonderful compensator when it comes to glazing over a play’s fundamental problem. There are a limited number of pitfalls that menace all young playwrights and Edelman has fallen victim to the most widespread: he has penned a very well-written work that falls short of being a play. His characters are well chiseled, his dialogue crackles nicely, what’s lacking is the drama.
The terrain Edelman covers here is as old as Abelard and Heloise and as familiar as “The Thorn Birds”, and regrettably there is not one surprise to be found in the show, and nothing that occurs is “unexpected.” And no “surprises-nothing-unexpected” for an audience means no “surprises-nothing-unexpected” inflicted on the characters; hence no drama. For both Anne and Father Ben, their fall is too casual and their redemption too glib. This play intends torrential agonies of “Paradise Lost”, but only drizzles with the annoyance of “Paradise Misplaced”.
At the play’s conclusion one is unsure what either character has lost to or won from the narrative journey the playwright has lead them through. Confining the bulk of the play to the interior of the confessional works well enough until the coming of the final scene. At that point the dialogue covers an event that should be fuel for a searing staged dramatic confrontation. That instead it is the topic for a polite discussion thoroughly betrays the needs of the play. But Edelman is blessed with a cast and director who ably mask the work’s flaws while highlighting its virtues, of which there are many.
The Belle of Belfast
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Performances through October 28.