- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

Gasoline — who would have thought it could be such a potent aphrodisiac? It is the scent of petrol that ignites a string of wretched events in Irish playwright Abbie Spallen’s “Pumpgirl,” being staged vividly at Solas Nua under the direction of Linda Murray.

A series of intertwining monologues, “Pumpgirl” may appear to have much in common with the works of Irish playwrights Mark O’Rowe, Enda Walsh, Brian Friel and Conor McPherson, but the rural low-lifes in Miss Spallen’s drama are closer to a Gaelic variation on the casually violent jerks you would find in a Sam Shepard play such as “True West.” There is nothing redeeming about any of these characters — they are empty rebels without a clue.

Set in the northern borderlands of Ireland, the trio of losers in “Pumpgirl” begins with a young woman known as Pumpgirl (played with flinty-eyed shrewdness by Madeleine Carr), an androgynous creature who works at a rusted-out gas station on the edge of town and views the prospect of changing oil, pumping gas and changing air filters with the giddy romanticism of a poet contemplating a love sonnet. Miss Spallen’s rapturous dialogue describes the “sweet and sour” smell of petrol as if it were Chanel No. 5, and nothing escapes her keen senses, not even the body hair “snaking like smoke signals” on the beer guts of some of her customers.

Her favorite customer is “No Helmet” Hammy (Dan Brick, touching as a small-minded small-town man), a picayune race-car driver who also cleans chicken coops for a living. What makes his engines rev is anything American — Budweiser beer, Glen Campbell songs, souped-up cars. He’s married to the unhappy and trapped Sinead (a sharp and stinging Stephanie Roswell) but spends most of his time lovin’ up Pumpgirl in his potato-chip-strewn old Toyota Celica and hanging out with his reprobate friends.

Meanwhile, Sinead is taking a joy ride of her own, dropping her drawers for a man from the market after he utters one quotation from poet Francis Bacon — thus confirming every hackneyed stereotype of country girls.

What draws Pumpgirl so tragically to Hammy is an utter mystery — other than that he acknowledges her existence and pays attention to her. The key to this lies with Sinead, who wryly notes the slim pickings available when she was in the market for a husband. Yet the almost scarily blithe Pumpgirl is something of a cipher herself. Everything seems to roll off her like Valvoline — even a gang rape that includes Hammy — but that does not completely explain her puppy-dog adoration of her lover or why she kidnaps his children one day after school and nearly leads them to their deaths.

Hammy’s motivations are equally obscure. While Mr. Brick gives him a wistful, lost-soul quality, he comes across as a dim bulb, and his existential crisis is unlikely for someone with such an unexamined life. Miss Spallen acutely captures the grim realities of rural Irish life, but without catharsis or some sort of meaning, “Pumpgirl” just seems like an exercise in stupidity and meanness.

★★½

WHAT: “Pumpgirl” by Abbie Spallen

WHERE: Solas Nua at the Flashpoint Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through March 22.

TICKETS: $16 to $21

PHONE: 202/595-1915

WEB SITE: www.solasnua.org

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