By Elise Marenson
The dark and dreary set of Nate Rufus Edelman’s smartly written play The Belle of Belfast is a metaphor for the somber life thrust upon denizens of Belfast in 1985. It is the thick of the troubles, the resurgent dream of Catholics in Northern Ireland to be reunited with their free brethren in the Irish Republic. Bombs explode everywhere, both Catholics and Protestants are dying, and death is as commonplace as it is senseless. The gloomy set never changes, painting a haunting impression of these stagnant Irish lives.
Caught in the trap are seventeen year old Anne Malloy (Kate Lydic) and her best mate Ciara Murphy (Arielle Hoffman). Anne was orphaned at eleven when her parents were blown up for a free Ireland, but to Anne, for no reason at all. She is stuck in the care of her annoyingly silly great aunt Emma Malloy, hilariously played by (Patricia Conolly). The girls gab about boys and their crushes, typical teenaged fantasies that pump some delight into a boring life that doesn’t promise much of a future. Anne is beautiful, intelligent, feisty, cynical, and acts the slut. Ciara is adorable, naïve, gullible, and sublimates her desires with curry chips. Ms. Lydic and Ms. Hoffman do so well portraying young Irish girls that I was surprised to read in the program that they hail from New York City and South Florida respectively. Both women are immensely engaging in their roles.
Anne Malloy loves nothing more than to shock the family priest Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley). She is in love with him, or perhaps thinks she is, because he is the only person who listens and is kind to her. At thirty-five, having taken vows of celibacy, he is purer and clearly more innocent than Anne who is half his age. She comes to his confessional with zingers like, “I can’t be excommunicated fer shagging a Protestant can I?” and “Does the Catholic Church still frown upon abortions, because I did purchase maself an assortment of coat-hangers.” Father Reilly protests her profanity and salacious talk, but you get the feeling that he is secretly amused and titillated by her audacity. This assumption may be filling in the blanks because although Mr. Allan-Headley’s Father Reilly is caring and likeable, his face doesn’t always reveal his true feelings. Subtlety is possibly his artistic choice or Claudia Weill’s direction. Ms. Weill is a notable director who has made a career in film and TV as well as theater.
Father Reilly lives at the rectory with an older priest, Dermott Behan (Billy Meleady). Father Behan is an alcoholic with serious doubts that his sacrifice for the priesthood was worth it. The dialogue between the two priests about their shared crisis of faith might make devout Catholics uncomfortable. It is an eye opener, seeing two priests as imperfect men with earthly feelings and desires. “If I molest a wee lad, do ya think the Church would move me to Donegal, Ben? Father Behan jokes. “I could surf if I lived in Donegal.” Mr. Meleady gives a touching performance as the aging clergyman, drowning his regrets in booze.
What becomes of Anne Malloy’s flirtation with Father Ben Reilly? I won’t spoil it for you. Against the backdrop of war torn Belfast, the playwright infuses his potentially lugubrious story with humor. Mr. Edelman has a gift for dialogue and knows precisely how to balance wit with serious subjects. The Belle of Belfast is thoroughly entertaining.
The Belle of Belfast
By Nate Rufus Edelman; directed by Claudia Weill;
WITH: Hamish Allan-Headley (Ben Reilly), Patricia Conolly (Emma Malloy), Arielle Hoffman (Ciara Murphy), Kate Lydic (Anne Malloy), Billy Meleady (Dermott Behan).
sets by John McDermott; costumes by Terese Wadden; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound by Daniel Kluger; projections by Jeff Larson; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Christine Lemme; casting by Deborah Brown; assistant stage manager, Rebecca C. Monroe; press rep, Coyle Entertainment. Presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre, Artistic Director, Charlotte Moore, Producing Director, Ciarán O’Reilly. At the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street in Union Square. Tickets are priced at $71.00 and are on sale now through The Irish Rep box office by calling 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org. Through June 7, 2015. Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.