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Theatre in Review: The Belle of Belfast (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Arielle Hoffman, Kate Lydic. Photo: Carol Rosegg

If nothing else, The Belle of Belfast makes one thing clear: If you're going to make a play for the one you love, the confessional booth is probably not the place to do it. The title character of Nate Rufus Edelman's play tries it and earns no end of grief for her troubles.

She is Anne Malloy, and she may be a 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl but she has a mouth on her that would shock a platoon of marines. Popping into the confessional after her elderly aunt, Emma, departs, she breezily asks Father Reilly," What's the craic, Ben? Did my auntie bore you confessing shite?" When the priest demurs, she adds, "Lucky fuck. She bores the tits off me. Forever bitching about nonsense bollocks." At the insistence of the priest, she will make one concession, substituting "feck" for the other F word, but otherwise her attitude is casually scalding.

Anne comes honestly by her take-no-prisoners attitude, for The Belle of Belfast is set in that Northern Ireland city in 1985, at height of the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and there is little hope on offer. Anne's parents were staunch Republicans who ended up as collateral damage, killed in a bombing intended to take out Unionists. Since then, she has been raised by Emma, who has two pastimes, getting drunk and dreaming up sins for her weekly indulgence in the sacrament of penance. Fed up with waiting for Emma to pass out each night, and possessing no belief in God or the Republican cause, Anne is smart enough to know that she is stuck in a dead-end life.

So the unnervingly assured Anne decides to get Father Reilly's attention, which she does by confessing to a sex-and-drugs encounter that has left her pregnant and looking for an abortion. This turns out to be a lie, but she does admit to a certain affection for a married man. In the week that follows, she picks up a young man for sex, then returns to confess that, dropping the bombshell that the married man she fancies is none other than Reilly himself. (Well, he is married to the church.)

No good can come of this, and none does, as Reilly slips into a deeper involvement with Anne, watching his faith fall away in the process. It doesn't help that Anne begins to see in Reilly husband material; it is an impossible situation, and once real feelings are declared, the inevitable result is a brutally honest confrontation that sends both of their lives spinning in unexpected directions. A final encounter, some years later, reveals that the repercussions of their relationship continue to be felt in both their lives.

One big problem with The Belle of Belfast is that Edelman never really makes us feel that Anne and Reilly might possibly belong together, even if only for a moment. Whether Anne is swearing like a stevedore or, rather implausibly, turning moony and innocent, she doesn't connect with Reilly, who, at 35, is twice her age, in a way that something meaningful seems to happen. We know so little about Reilly, who spends most of the play listening to others, that we have little sense of him. The author is notably slack at texture, all the little character details that would give us a sense of who these characters really are.

The wider-focus view of The Belle of Belfast means to reveal how the religious troubles have poisoned the lives of all the characters. In addition to Anne's carefully learned nihilism, Reilly becomes increasingly disenchanted with the church's role in support of the Republicans. "It's getting hard, so it is, to be rationalizing the early deaths of our youth," he notes. The only characters who fully support the Republican cause are Emma, who gets pickled every night, and Dermott, Reilly's colleague in holy orders, a distressingly flat character who, through a haze of whisky, excoriates Queen Elizabeth II, offers scathing commentary on his parishioners, and dreams of being sent to Donegal, where he at least could surf. But none of the people in The Belle of Belfast are sufficiently interesting; they tend to state their problems over and over until they become tiresome.

Having seen Kate Lydic as a deeply moving Lavinia in Titus Andronicus earlier this season, and watching Hamish Allan-Headley underplay with such skill, it surely isn't their fault that they can't make something convincing out of the Anne-Reilly relationship. Arielle Hoffman is fine as Anne's plump friend Ciara, whose eye for the boys conflicts with her taste for curried chips. Billy Meleady is the only member of the cast held over from a Los Angeles production of the play, which was also directed by Claudia Weill, who staged this production, but the part of Dermott is singularly unrewarding, especially given his eleventh-hour conversion to Roman Catholic orthodoxy following Reilly's admission of sexual guilt. Patricia Conolly amuses steadily as Emma, who is notably annoyed to be told that she isn't sinning.

John McDermott's authentically gritty set is divided between a grim urban exterior where Anne and Ciara hang out and the seedy rectory where Reilly and Dermott live. Jeff Larson provides a pair of startling montages of images detailing the grim facts of life in Belfast -- urban squalor, demonstrations, riots, and bombings. Justin Townsend's lighting capably reshapes the space as needed. Terese Wadden's costumes feel reasonably authentic. Daniel Kluger's sound design includes some rock music tracks, street traffic noise, and a truly upsetting explosion.

There's rich material here, but The Belle of Belfast barely skims the surface. The story of a destabilizing passion, it never strikes fire, nor does it draw on its rich and tragic background for real emotional heft. It's more of a cautionary tale: Kids, don't try to seduce your priest. -- David Barbour

(23 April 2015)

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